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European river cruising is putting on the ritz.

All across the Continent, operators are putting the final touches on a bevy of newbuilds set to launch in 2011 that boast more bells and whistles than their predecessors and cost nearly triple what ships did when the industry first gained a solid footing in the mid-1990s.

While some of the increased cost is the inevitable result of inflation, the majority of the growing expense represents enhancements designed to increase the operators' return on investment.

Among the most obvious enhancements is the sheer size of the vessels. Average ship length has increased from 360 feet to 440 feet. But unlike ocean vessels, which are limited only by the availability of deep-water ports, river cruise ships are far more limited in size and shape because of the bridges they sail under and locks they sail through.

Thus, the main price differential has become interior appointments.

Focus On CruisingWhether the improvement is new indoor-outdoor balcony concepts now coming onto the market, marble bathrooms or chic alternative dining areas, river cruise operators are finding that all the little differentiating details are adding up.

"In the mid-'90s, ships were built for about 6, 7, 8 million euros," said Rudi Schreiner, president of Ama Waterways. "In 2000, those ships were running around 13 million euros."

Today, he said, a river cruise ship costs between 18 million and 20 million euros to build, or about $24.5 million to $27.2 million, based on current exchange rates.

"The cost of the ship mainly also depends on the interior furnishings," he said. "You can buy cheap chairs or you can buy expensive chairs; that makes a real big difference."

As for the bathrooms, he said, "you can use marble, or you can use plastic. The same with the furnishings. So, when we build ships, for me, the decor is very important."

Uniworld River Cruises' newest European river vessel, the 164-passenger River Antoinette, scheduled to enter service in March, "is going to be the most expensive ever built," said Uniworld's president, Guy Young. Uniworld went all out on the interior design features, he said, having purchased the chandelier from the former Tavern on the Green restaurant in New York's Central Park, as well as original artwork, among other notable design enhancements.

"Obviously, when we're building new window features, a swimming pool, movie theater, a lounge on the top deck, a sky bar, all of those fundamental features, you add on all the soft goods and the artwork, that's adding significantly to the cost," Young said.

The restaurant on the Avalon PanoramaAt a length of 443 feet and a width of 37.5 feet, the Antoinette will be the largest ship in Uniworld's fleet. It will feature a 20-foot-by-13-foot, heated swimming pool; glass-enclosed balconies that passengers can electronically raise or drop; and a 20-person movie theater, all of which are pushing the Antoinette's price tag up 25% over Uniworld's previous most expensive ship, though Young declined to specify which ship that was.

Breaking the mold

Indeed, there's no such thing as just ordering a cookie-cutter river cruise ship anymore. Operators are employing sophisticated design teams to rethink interior spaces and seeking out new suppliers to provide state-of-the-art furniture and fixtures.

Avalon Waterways brought on an entirely new interior design team to help conceptualize its latest ship, the Avalon Panorama, whose 64 newly designed 200-square-foot suites on the top two decks represent a significant departure from the operator's previous ships.

Each suite will have a seating area, which required rethinking the stateroom furniture and ordering very precise pieces, adjacent to an 11-foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall panoramic window.

After announcing the new design concept of the Avalon Panorama, which is scheduled to launch in May, Avalon Waterways' managing director, Patrick Clark, without divulging the Panorama's actual price tag, said that the going rate for a river cruise ship was running as high as 24 million euros, or $32.6 million.

Contributing to the higher price, Clark said, are the enhancements Avalon decided to make in almost every aspect of the Panorama: "the stateroom, the things we're putting in the stateroom, the bathroom, the marble, upgrading things like the [toiletries]; when you look at public areas, the furniture, the tables."

Gambling on improved ROI

Schreiner noted that all these improvements in the product, from cosmetic upgrades to energy efficiency, are contributing to a much greater upfront investment, which can only be justified because they lend themselves to improved returns over time.

The Viking Legend"You are trying to work with fairly new enhanced items, like LED lighting," he said. "You have thousands of light bulbs on the ship, [so LEDs] save a lot of energy. Energy efficiency is key, from the engines to the generators to the insulation. These are things that in the long run are also eventually paying off. Fuel costs are climbing again. It's very important to have a green ship, to be as fuel conscious and as environmentally conscious as possible."

Viking River Cruises, too, has emphasized green elements on its two newest ships, the Viking Legend, which launched in 2009, and the Viking Prestige, slated to debut in July. The ships' greener diesel engines propel electrical generators, enabling them to use 20% less energy than a comparable older ship.

"Yes, they are costing more," said Richard Marnell, Viking's senior vice president of marketing in North America. But, he added, demand justifies it; the Viking Legend generated enough demand that "we needed to get a new vessel on the water."

A new ship with fancier trimmings also enables river cruise operators to charge more for a premium product.

Avalon's Clark observed: "Because we are offering a larger space, there is about a $200-per-week-additional price possible." But he was also quick to note that the higher price tag "hasn't been a deterrent." The Panorama is virtually sold out, he said.

Beyond the ship

Tauck spokesman Tom Armstrong said the enhancements of river cruising were also spreading to the land-based portion of the experience.

"We work very hard to have the best ships on the rivers of Europe," he said, "but we really put an equal emphasis on the quality of the shore excursions, because there is so much focus on hardware.

"It's a harder thing to demonstrate in a brochure, but we've always felt that the on-shore excursion is the primary component of a river cruise."

This year, Tauck will be premiering its first new river cruise ship in two years, the 118-passenger Treasures, which will bring the number of ships in its river fleet to four.

And despite its emphasis on quality destinations, Tauck, like its competitors, is making enhancements inside and out: for example, improving bedding and other interior elements not only on the Treasures but on its other three river vessels, as well.

For 2011, the bedding in each stateroom will feature two single beds that can be combined to form a fully integrated king-size bed, and all beds will be outfitted with 400 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and Hungarian down pillows.

The company found a new supplier for the upgraded beds.

So, while the shore experience is a crucial component of Tauck's river program, Armstrong acknowledged that the company is also making a "significant investment" in its ships.

"It's a very real enhancement with the quality we're installing," he said.

Surging expectations

The natural result of all the buzz surrounding the added touches and enhanced elements that are becoming an integral part of river ships is that the passengers' expectations about what defines a river cruise experience have also grown.

But Ama Waterways' Schreiner said that was appropriate given the investment cruisers are making in the experience.

"On the interior decoration, it's important to add this comfortable luxury," he said. "People are coming from all across the globe. It is a fairly high-priced item, flying to Europe. You don't want to spend a couple thousand [euros] to get there and not be on a very comfortable ship."

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