This year, the North American river cruise market will reach some half a million passengers in Europe, more than double the market's capacity in 2007 and more than seven times the number of North American river cruisers who sailed through Europe in 2001, according to data recently compiled by Viking River Cruises.
And though there were some early signs that 2015 might be relatively slower than the previous three boom years for river cruising, not a single player in the river cruise market -- not least Viking, the company leading the growth charge -- is wavering in its confidence that the market's demand remains as strong as ever and that expansion will continue well into the foreseeable future.
"Over the last few years, river cruising has been the fastest-growing segment in travel," said Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking Cruises. "We continue to adapt our rate of growth to the level of demand, and we believe that there is significantly more opportunity for the river cruise industry."
That statement carries a lot of weight from a company that predicts that in 2015 it will host about half of those 500,000 North American river cruise passengers in Europe.
This year also marks the year that Viking launches its first ocean-going vessel, the Viking Star, which for some might indicate a change in focus for the company away from river cruising. Not so, according to Marnell.
"We do not view the addition of ocean cruises as a shift in focus," he said. "Rather, it is a natural extension of the Viking brand, as many of our guests take both river and ocean cruises."
Marnell added that Viking will carry some 20,000 passengers on its ocean vessel in 2015, compared with the 250,000 passengers it will carry on its river cruises.
"Ocean has a lot of growth opportunity, but for the time being, the focus for us still has to be river," he said.
And as if to emphatically prove his point, Viking illustrated that commitment to river with a bang two weeks ago when it announced that it would build six cruise vessels for the Mississippi River, the company's first foray into North America.
Back in Europe, which remains the highest-volume destination for river cruising (though there is ample growth in Southeast Asia and South and North America, as well), this month marks the unofficial start of the 2015 river cruise christening season, which will again see almost all the major river lines introduce inventory. And more ships are already on order for 2016 and 2017.
Last spring’s ceremony in Amsterdam for Viking’s record launch of 18 ships in Europe.
Viking is launching another 12 vessels in Europe this year on top of the record-breaking 18 vessels it launched in 2014, which followed 10 launched in 2013 and six in 2012.
But when asked how long all this seemingly endless year-over-year, double-digit growth can continue, most river cruise executives simply respond that the demand continues to climb.
"So far, I haven't seen much of a slowdown on our side," said Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways. "We will continue to build two to three new vessels per year for the foreseeable future."
In 2015, AmaWaterways will carry some 82,000 passengers on its fleet of 17 vessels in Europe and two on the Mekong. That number includes two new vessels in Europe and one on the Mekong launching this year, according to Schreiner.
Of those passengers, some 51,000 will be North American, and the rest will be predominantly Australian with a smattering from Europe, Latin America, Asia and South Africa.
"Our growth has been very steady over the past several years, and our future plans will continue along a similar pace," Schreiner said.
In 2016, Ama will add another two ships in Europe, which will allow for an additional 12,000 passengers and increase its fleet size to 21 vessels.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will have 13 ships in Europe in 2015, with the launch of the S.S. Maria Theresa, and 14 ships in 2016 (Uniworld also charters two ships each in China and Southeast Asia and beginning in 2016 will start chartering a vessel on India's Ganges).
Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen with the Guinness World Record certificate for the launch.
Avalon Waterways is competitive, too, with 15 ships sailing in Europe and two in Southeast Asia this year (not including several additional charters), and 16 ships in Europe in 2016, assuming the company retires one of its older vessels next year in addition to adding two newbuilds, according to Patrick Clark, Avalon's managing director.
"Even though we're witnessing a slower start to 2015 compared with a record-breaking year last year, we're still witnessing increases; we have more ships," Clark said. "While year-over-year growth can vary, the growth in the river cruise trend continues. In fact, demographics and awareness of the travel style will be a source of growth for years to come."
Still, the river cruise industry's seemingly unstoppable expansion is not without its growing pains. It has both opened up opportunities for a much larger variety of players and business models and has created challenges in terms of docking space and itinerary differentiation. The result is that the 500,000-passenger river cruising landscape of 2015 looks a lot different from its much simpler, turn-of-the-millennium predecessor. Today, river cruising is a much more vibrant and dynamic marketplace and a much more crowded and complicated one, as well.
Then and now
In 2000, the river cruise industry was dominated by some familiar names like Viking and Uniworld as well as the now long-gone Peter Deilmann Cruises and direct-to-consumer stalwart Grand Circle Travel. There was some variation in the product as well as some hardware standouts like Deilmann's 203-passenger Danube cruiser Mozart, praised for its luxury interiors, larger-than-average staterooms and indoor pool.
But overall, river cruising was much simpler and more homogenous than it is now.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection launched the S.S. Catherine in France’s Provence region last year, stepping up the competition in the river cruise market with lavish interiors.
Today, there are many more players and many more approaches to doing business. In 2015, the major players in Europe include Viking, Uniworld, Avalon, Ama, Tauck (which will have seven vessels in its European fleet in 2015) and Grand Circle Cruise Lines (which is operating 15 river cruise vessels this year).
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But numerous other lines have joined the fray, as well, including several headquartered abroad. There are the Australian-owned sister companies Scenic Cruises and Emerald Waterways and the French company CroisiEurope as well as homegrown Amras Cruises, which made a splash last year when it partnered with Celebrity Cruises on ocean-river itineraries.
Vantage Deluxe World Travel is another, mostly direct-to-consumer company (though Vantage does pay commissions and welcomes agent bookings) with a respectable river cruise presence. In 2015, Vantage will operate seven ships in Europe and four in Asia.
Every company is carving out a niche, finding that while they no longer have to explain their actual product, they do have to explain how their product differs.
Some, like Viking, Grand Circle and CroisiEurope, are churning out hard-to-beat pricing. Others, including Tauck, Uniworld, Ama and Scenic, are going after the all- or mostly inclusive high-end market. Still others are offering upscale amenities at an affordable luxury price point, such as Avalon and Emerald.
Then there is the amenities-and-inclusions matrix, which has become much more nuanced and complex in recent years as river cruise lines juggle pricing against inclusiveness to create a unique formula for competitiveness.
While river cruising tends to be a very inclusive product in general when compared with other forms of travel, several extras and add-ons are possible while rolling down the river. For instance, while most lines now offer beer and wine at dinner and lunch, drinks at the bar are often not included. Uniworld, Tauck and Scenic are an exception, with their prices including most beverages onboard, save for premium and top-shelf alcohol, which isn't always covered by the all-drinks-included policy.
Most excursions are included on river cruises, but some lines offer optional excursions that cost extra. There are also port charges and gratuities. Viking includes port fees in its prices, Uniworld includes gratuities, and Tauck and Scenic include port charges as well as gratuities.
The river cruise vessels of 2015 themselves are also far more sophisticated than they were pre-boom. In 2000, who would have thought that river cruise vessels might eventually have a swimming pool that converts to a cinema at night, such as those on Emerald Waterways vessels, or lower-deck cabins with soaring ceilings, a raised seating area and windows that open, such as the ones that Tauck introduced last year?
"All of our ships have a unique design and a very high investment when you consider the quality of our artwork and decor," said Guy Young, president of Uniworld, which has become known for lavish interiors that often include original artwork and custom details. Uniworld is among those companies pushing the river cruising hardware envelope with elements such as indoor pools and stateroom windows featuring drop-down panes that convert into French balconies with the push of a button.
The Royal Suite on Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine.
Interestingly, there has also been a bit of a backlash against the river-cruise amenities race of late, a back-to-basics retort about all the other aspects of river cruising that make it a successful vacation product and that sometimes get drowned out by the focus on all the onboard bells and whistles.
"One can focus on gizmos, which makes for great editorial copy," said Viking's Marnell. But, he added, "If you want to look at where innovation is really occurring in river cruising, it's how do you create a hospitality team that makes [a trip] unforgettable? That human investment is not something that is easy to convey in marketing, and it's not easy to cover or justify in editorial pages. But it is what has created a very successful foundation for us."
Viking remains committed to its model of churning out sleek, modern and virtually identical 190-passenger Viking Longships in Europe that feature updated stateroom amenities such as balconies (Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen held out on balconies until a few years ago), a large range of cabin categories and signature public spaces like the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace, but no onboard pools or spas.
Grand Circle relies on a fleet consisting almost entirely of older and refurbished vessels. But Mike Dowd, the line's CEO, said that his customers -- an older, often highly educated demographic of travelers -- are much less focused on hardware details and developments than some other cruise passengers might be.
"We engage in lots of conversations with our customers, and they continually tell us that what they're interested in is the experience," said Dowd, who noted that Grand Circle's emphasis is often on getting passengers off the ship and into town, engaging with the local culture and people.
Limited space, unlimited opportunity
While river cruise companies unanimously stand behind the market's growth potential, none of them can deny that two big challenges continue to face river cruising: the limited number of desirable and navigable rivers and the issue of docking space.
The Avalon Luminary on Germany’s Moselle River.
"Traffic on the rivers has become over-crowded as companies and ships compete for the same cities, ports and docks," said Chris Bensley, vice president of product marketing and planning for Vantage Deluxe World Travel's river cruise business.
Bensley noted that ports and docking spaces have become a challenge, with the most popular river ports in Europe, such as Budapest, Vienna and Amsterdam, facing the most serious congestion.
"Fortunately, those cities also see the [positive] impact that river cruising has on their economy, and they themselves are also continually working to address those issues," Bensley added.
Indeed, Viking's Marnell said that municipalities in Europe are working to enhance their port infrastructures to better accommodate the river cruise industry's growth.
"Our municipal partners have demonstrated a willingness to continue to invest in the appropriate infrastructure," Marnell said.
And the growing number of ships on Europe's rivers has also opened up opportunities for lesser-known ports and towns along the riverbanks to court river cruise companies looking to diversify their product offerings and to get away from the crowds.
AmaWaterways’ AmaLyra on the Danube River in Bratislava, Slovakia.
For example, AmaWaterways has established a strong relationship with the small German town of Vilshofen along the Danube River, where the company has held many of its christening ceremonies in recent years. Tauck last year christened its newest vessel, the Savor, in Bingen, Germany, across the Rhine River from the more popular river cruise port of Rudesheim.
"We've balanced the 'must-see' cities with smaller towns like Mohacs [in Hungary] on the Danube and Speyer [in Germany] on the Rhine," Bensley said.
And with all the crowding and competition, some river cruise lines are determined to find new river routes. Last year, Uniworld and Viking inaugurated new itineraries in France's Bordeaux region, and several others have since followed them there.
This year, CroisiEurope is sending a new paddlewheeler, the 96-passenger Loire Princesse, up the Loire River, another first for river cruising. Additionally, Viking is launching two vessels on Germany's Elbe River, where it has very little company save for CroisiEurope, which is also launching a single vessel on the Elbe this year.
Heading into 2016 and beyond, Avalon's Clark predicts that returning river cruisers are going to want more of those off-the-beaten-path destinations.
"In terms of overall growth, we anticipate more repeat travelers showing interest in cruises on lesser-known rivers like the Moselle or lower Danube," Clark said.
As for potential new river cruisers, he said, "The sheer volume of ocean cruisers hearing about, researching and adopting river cruising seems to ensure a pool of new prospects for a long time."