Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

InsightAs river cruise lines — most notably Viking River Cruises — crank out new vessels, the question of what is happening with all the aging ships on Europe’s inland waterways is worth asking, since vessel retirement puts the segment’s growth into perspective.

“It sounds like tremendous growth, but nobody looks at the ships that are being retired,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.

Indeed, while Viking’s plan to add six ships to the market this year and at least another six next year seems like an ambitious addition of capacity into the European river cruise market, a snapshot of Viking’s fleet in 2001 compared with its 2012 fleet tells a slightly different tale.

In 2001, Viking had 28 ships, including seven ships in Russia, and nine ships the company bought from KD River Cruises. In 2012, with the six new Viking Longships, Viking will have 24 ships in its fleet. Of the nine KD ships, only one, the Viking Helvetia, remains in the Viking fleet. (Full disclosure: Viking’s 2001 fleet statistics were provided by Schreiner, who was president of Viking at that time.)

Next year, Viking will add another six ships, but it will likely retire the Viking Primadonna and Viking Danube, according to the company.

For the past several years, Avalon Waterways has been adding ships in Europe at a rate of one to two new vessels a year. But at the end of 2010, it did not renew the lease on two of its older vessels, the Avalon Artistry and Avalon Poetry, and next year the company is retiring the 160-passenger Avalon Tapestry, which was built in 2006. With two new ships this year, and two more next (minus the Tapestry), Avalon’s Europe fleet will number 12 by the end of 2013.

“Whenever there is big talk about how many ships are being added to the market, we shouldn’t forget about how many ships are being disposed of,” Schreiner said.

But numbers don’t tell the entire story. Many of the older river cruise ships carried between 100 and 150 passengers, while the new Viking Longships are 190-passenger vessels. And river cruise lines claim to be continually investing in enhancements to the onboard experience, from improved bedding to finer dining venues to additional lounges.

Additionally, the remaining river cruise lines do not have plans to retire any vessels this year or next, though they’re also not adding them at the rate that Viking is.

Uniworld River Cruises doesn’t have plans to retire any ships this year or next, but the company hasn’t been building ships at the rate of its competitors, and instead has been focused on an aggressive refurbishment plan of its existing vessels. The company also owns most of its vessels, as opposed to Avalon, which leases its ships, and Viking, which owns, charters and leases its ships.

AmaWaterways is also not retiring any vessels this year or next, and is launching one newbuild in Europe this year and two more next year, which will bring its Europe fleet to 11 vessels, plus an additional ship in Russia. Ama owns its all its ships in Central and Western Europe.

Last year, Tauck launched a fourth river cruise ship and is holding steady with its existing leased vessels and no plans to retire any this year or next.

This article has been corrected to reflect that Ama owns its ships in Central and Western Europe; a previous version reported that Ama charters or leases all of its ships.

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