River cruise shipbuilding was reignited in 2012, in large part by Viking River Cruises, with a zeal that will be continuing well into 2013.
In the coming year, river cruise companies hungry for new destinations to experiment with and expand into will be adding capacity in Portugal and France.
They will be testing new waters in Italy, especially Uniworld's Boutique River Cruise Collection, and competition in China is heating up with newbuilds and new investments on the Yangtze.
Viking's aggressive shipbuilding
In 2012, Viking River Cruises took the sector by storm with its launch of six Viking Longships, the company's newest class of river vessels.
But the company was just getting started. In 2013, Viking will launch a remarkable 10 more Longships, with another eight scheduled to be built in 2014.
In March, Viking is planning to host a simultaneous christening ceremony in Amsterdam of eight of the 10 ships launching next year. The two additional Longships ordered for 2013, the Viking Baldur and the Viking Magni, will join the fleet in late August and September, respectively.
All the new ships are scheduled to sail the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers in 2013.
The rapid construction of Longships, which are all being built at the Neptun Werft shipyard in Rostock, Germany, is part of an ambitious expansion plan Viking laid out in 2010. Originally, the plan carried a price tag of $250 million, but that continues to grow.
A key feature of the Longships is that the central corridor has been shifted off-center to allow for a greater variety in cabin categories and layouts, ranging from 135-square-foot cabins with French balconies to 270-square-foot, two-room suites with full balconies. The ships also feature two 445-square-foot Explorer suites at the aft of the ship that Viking was able to add thanks to a reduced-vibration propulsion system.
Additionally, by squaring off the bows of the ships, Viking was able to add an indoor/outdoor Aquavit Lounge and gained an additional 1,000 square feet of interior layout space, about seven additional cabins' worth, creating a total of 95 cabins.
Avalon's and Ama's new ships
While Viking is by far being the most aggressive in its shipbuilding efforts in Europe, other river cruise lines are also rolling out new vessels.
Avalon Waterways is launching two Suite Ships, its newest class of vessels, in 2013: the 128-passenger Avalon Artistry II and the 166-passenger Avalon Expression. Both will be very similar in design to the Avalon Panorama, the first of Avalon's Suite Ship class of vessels, which was introduced last year. But a new feature will be an alternative dining venue adjacent to the bar and lounge area. Beginning in April, the Artistry II will sail Avalon's Romantic Rhine itinerary between Amsterdam and either Basel or Zurich, Switzerland. The Expression will sail the Danube.
Ama Waterways is also launching a new river cruise ship in Europe in 2013, the 164-passenger Amaprima, sister ship to the Amacerto. The Amaprima will feature Ama's new twin-balcony concept, an indoor/outdoor seating area in the cabins; a heated swimming pool; multiple dining venues; and complimentary, in-cabin Internet and infotainment system with 42-inch flat-screen TVs.
The Amaprima will enter service in April, sailing numerous Danube itineraries.
Portugal's Douro River Valley
Home to Portugal's famed port winemaking region, the scenic Douro River Valley will welcome several new river cruise ships in 2013.
Uniworld will lease a newbuild in Portugal for 2013, the 118-passenger Queen Isabel, being constructed by the Portuguese company Douro Azul, which will own the ship.
Viking will introduce a Portugal and Spain itinerary on the relaunched 124-passenger Viking Douro, formerly the Douro Spirit, a ship built in 2011 that Uniworld has been chartering from Douro Azul. Viking is taking over shipboard management, and Douro Azul will continue to own the ship.
Ama Waterways will also lease a newbuild in Portugal next year, also being built by Douro Azul. The 106-passenger Amavida will launch on April 2, featuring 53 cabins, 36 of which will be 216 square feet and have full balconies.
The hardware and consequently the economics of river cruising on the Douro is a bit different than in the rest of Europe, according to Uniworld President Guy Young. The ships are built at about 261 feet in length, compared with the newer ships in Europe that are as long as 443 feet. So ships in Portugal tend to be in the 100- to 125-passenger range, compared with the 160- to 200-passenger ships being built for the rest of Europe.
The classic Douro cruise itinerary starts with a stay in Lisbon before passengers transfer to the northern city of Porto. The cruise itself winds through the Douro River Valley, which has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site for its port wine tradition, which dates to the 18th century.
The river is nestled between rolling hills dotted by vineyards and small, historical cities such as Guimaraes as well as the winemaking hubs of Regua and Pinhao. The itinerary usually concludes with a land transfer into Spain to visit Salamanca.
Ama has introduced an itinerary for 2013 that includes an extra day to visit Madrid.
Over the last couple years, river cruise operators have been gradually repositioning more ships to itineraries on southern France's Rhone and Saone rivers, or bringing vessels to northern France on the Seine. That steady increase in capacity is continuing into 2013.
For the 2013 season, Ama Waterways will relocate the 150-passenger Amalegro from the Danube to the Seine for a new seven-night itinerary between Paris and Normandy, as well as for a 14-night itinerary that combines the Paris and Normandy cruise with a seven-night Rhone and Saone cruise. Ama will have 43.6% more capacity in France in 2013 than it had in 2012.
Scenic Cruises, too, is repositioning its 169-passenger Scenic Emerald to France for the 2013 season. Scenic has been chartering the 144-passenger Symphony, built in 2003, for its river product in France, which it will continue through the end of the 2012 season.
The Scenic Emerald, launched in 2008, has been sailing the Main and Danube rivers. Starting in April, the Scenic Emerald will sail several itineraries throughout France, including the 11- and 14-day Paris-to-Nice itineraries, a 14-day South of France itinerary and a 15-day Rhine and Rhone cruise.
China's Yangtze heats up
Shipbuilding and new investments on China's Yangtze River had been in a bit of a holding pattern during several slow years for tourism following the Beijing 2008 Olympics and through the global economic downturn.
But no more. In January, Century Cruises, a Chinese river cruise line with an office in the U.S., will introduce two new 398-passenger Yangtze River ships, the Century Paragon and Century Legend. The two ships will bring the company's total Yangtze fleet size to seven.
Century has not said how much it is spending to build the vessels, but the two ships boast a long list of bells and whistles, including a 2,153-square-foot indoor pool area and a 150-passenger movie theater.
There will be 160 outside-facing cabins on decks two, three and four that will measure 301 square feet each. Additionally, decks five and six will feature 34 executive suites measuring 414 square feet and two presidential suites on deck three at 1,141 square feet each.
Another Chinese company, President Cruises, is also launching two newbuilds on China's Yangtze River in 2013 with an emphasis on enhanced amenities and public areas.
President Cruises plans to introduce sister ships in April: the 462-passenger President 7 and President 8, both of which will measure 481 feet by 66 feet and will have 216 260-square-foot cabins, 12 executive suites at 376 square feet each and two 742-square-foot presidential suites.
President Cruises is owned by Chinese parent company Wuhan Yangtze Cruise Co. Ltd. The new ships will raise the company's fleet total to eight.
And Victoria Cruises too just relaunched the 198-passenger Victoria Grace and the 208-passenger Victoria Sophia in March 2012, concluding a two-year, $10 million renovation of five of its seven Yangtze River cruise vessels.
Uniworld to sail Italy's Po River
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is introducing a Po River itinerary in Italy for 2013, a first for a U.S. line.
In April, Uniworld will begin offering two Italy itineraries: an eight-day Venice and Po River itinerary, from Venice to Bologna and back; and a 13-day Splendors of Italy itinerary, the same cruise with the addition of two nights in Florence and three nights in Rome.
The Italy cruises will take place on the 134-passenger River Countess, a ship built in 2003 that is being refurbished this year and that is being repositioned from the Rhine and Danube rivers.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.