While new ships will continue to launch on Europe's inland waterways in 2012, the year will see some notable advancements in river cruise markets both nascent and reborn.
From the Mississippi to the Mekong, river cruising isn't just a European phenomenon anymore.
Two companies next year will be resuscitating the Mississippi River cruising market, which has lain dormant since one of the largest domestic river operators, Majestic America Line, ceased operations at the end of 2008.
Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines is building a 140-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, slated to enter service in August. And the Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co. is in the process of renovating the 436-passenger American Queen, which will relaunch in April. (The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. launched the American Queen in June 1995, and the vessel was turned over to the U.S. Maritime Administration in 2008 after Majestic America Line's parent company, Ambassadors International, defaulted on a guaranteed loan.)
Both companies are pulling out all the stops in their effort to breathe new life into the Mississippi River cruise market.
Tim Rubacky, senior vice president of sales, marketing and product development for the Great American Steamboat Co., said the new American Queen will be "significantly upgraded from [when it was owned by Majestic] in terms of food and service. They had cut everything to the bare bones. We are upping the ante on every level."
Indeed, the American Queen's culinary program, spearheaded by executive chef Regina Charboneau, offers four specialty dining venues, including the main J.M. White Dining Room and the Front Porch of America, which will be open 24/7.
"We're bringing the boat back to [its] mid-1990s heyday," Rubacky said, adding that back then, when the ships were owned by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., they were considered on par with Seabourn and the Queen Elizabeth 2 in terms of food and entertainment. "We're getting away from the nickel-and-dime mentality."
The entertainment options will include nightly dancing to swing, big band and Dixieland jazz music as well as concerts featuring the ship's calliope.
Departures will run from April 13 through Dec. 28 and will range from three to 10 days in length.
American Cruise Lines, which is currently building the Queen of the Mississippi in Salisbury, Md., plans to ramp up the entertainment offerings aboard its ship, as well.
According to the company, the program will feature entertainment "reminiscent of America's legendary steamboating era," including Dixieland bands in the vessel's Paddlewheel Lounge. Passengers will also be invited to play the ship's calliope.
Both ships will sail between Louisiana and Minnesota on the Mississippi and as far East as Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.
The Mekong's maturation
What was once a slow burn on the Mekong River has grown to a roaring blaze, with the planned launchings of a slew of newbuilds in Southeast Asia.
In 2012, Viking River Cruises will charter Pandaw River Cruises' 66-passenger Tonle Pandaw; Avalon Waterways will lease the 32-passenger Avalon Angkor, which will launch in September; and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises is partnering with Pandaw on a three-year charter of the 60-passenger River Saigon, which will launch in January. Moreover, Uniworld has already inked a second deal with Pandaw for an additional ship on the Mekong, the 60-passenger River Orchid, launching in January 2013.
Those ships will join Pandaw's existing three ships on the Mekong River and Ama Waterways' two ships: the 94-passenger La Marguerite and the 124-passenger Amalotus.
Ama does not plan to introduce a new ship in 2012, but the company has said that it is looking into options for more vessels in 2013 and beyond. And Viking has also hinted at plans for a possible 2013 newbuild.
The classic Mekong cruise sails a route from Siem Reap, Cambodia, across Tonle Sap Lake, through the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and on to Vietnam's largest city, Ho Chi Minh City. Many itineraries also include a flight to Hanoi for an overnight cruise through Halong Bay.
Europe: Longships and Panoramas
In 2012, Viking River Cruises will launch an unprecedented six ships in Europe that fall under a new class of vessels the company calls Longships. The six new ships will be the Viking Freya, Viking Idun, Viking Njord, Viking Odin, Viking Embla and Viking Aegir.
The 190-passenger Longships, designed by maritime architects Yran & Storbraaten, will be 443 feet long, with 95 cabins each. They will have several defining elements, not least of which will be their reconfigured layout. By shifting the central corridor over and adding two suites at the aft of the ship, Viking will be able to accommodate balcony space. Consequently, three-quarters of the cabins on the new ships will feature a balcony, French balcony or both.
And instead of having only larger cabins on the upper decks and smaller cabins on the lower deck, there will be a mix of larger and smaller cabins on all the decks because of the off-center corridor.
In addition to new cabin configurations, the Longships will have an indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace at the front of the ship, a feature Viking was able to add by squaring off the bow rather than having it come to a point.
The plan is for the new Viking Longships to sail existing itineraries within Europe, with an emphasis on adding capacity to Viking's two most popular programs: the 15-day Grand European Tour, from Amsterdam to Budapest, and the reverse; and the eight-day Romantic Danube, sailing from Budapest to Nuremberg, Germany, and the reverse.
The six newbuilds will bring the Viking-owned fleet to 25 by the end of 2012.
Viking originally estimated that the new ships would cost about $30 million each, about $5 million more than its previous class of ships.
Additionally, in 2012, Avalon Waterways will introduce two sister ships to the Avalon Panorama: the 128-passenger Avalon Visionary and the 164-passenger Avalon Vista. With the Vista and Visionary, Avalon's Europe fleet will total 11 ships in 2012, increasing the company's capacity in Europe by 22%.
For news on river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.