As Europe opens the 2019 river cruise season with a host of new ships, many lines find themselves scurrying to fill prime season inventory with special deals.

From two-for-one offers to free air and free upgrades, specials are still circulating for sailings that had been expected to sell out long ago.

Brett Tollman, CEO of the Travel Corporation, parent of the Uniworld and U river cruise brands, and several agents blamed oversupply for the discounting.

"If you don't believe there's too much capacity, why are we seeing the two-for-one offers or 75% off?" he asked. "What good is that for any company or for the industry?"

Indeed, the recent flurry of specials comes as river lines continue to launch and order ships, including seven new river vessels from Viking and three from AmaWaterways this year. 

Others players, however, insist it's not a matter of too many boats but rather of a temporary market reaction to several factors, including last year's negative publicity about historically low water levels that disrupted sailings for months on the Danube and the Rhine rivers.

Pamela Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, which christened its 15th panorama-style ship in Budapest on April 7, said the line had a strong start to 2019, then saw things drop off for a while.

"There was a little slowdown ... when the [U.S.] government shutdown happened, the stock market took a little hit, and I think also on the downside of our situation last year was the water levels in Europe," she said. "I can't say which elements certainly contributed to a little bit of a slowdown, but I would say the government shutdown and the little blip in the stock market were the bigger factors. And what I hear from my colleagues is that that was across the board, and not only in river cruising but all kinds of premium-brand product."

On the record

The 2019 European river cruise season is getting underway amid questions about whether too much supply, last year's historically low water levels or other factors are leading to discounting. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked about the industry with Wolfgang Luftner, co-owner of Luftner Cruises, the parent company of Amadeus River Cruises, who is largely credited with helping to start the industry. Read More

Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways, agreed with Hoffee and said his company was seeing similar trends.

"We were strong up until October," he said. "Then it slowed down. ... It could have been partially due to the low-water situation, because for two and a half months there was a lot of stuff going on with low water. Then there was this little crash in the stock market around Christmas. But overall we are doing good."

The bottom line, Schreiner said, is that "I am not concerned about too much supply."

Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge said sales at her line are strong. 

"Our sales are up over last year," she said. "January was not what we expected compared to last year, but that's compared to one of our best years ever."

Hoffee said that while Avalon is committed to never undercutting its early-booking specials, it has dusted off a few promotions for some sailings in the summer that are not as full as she would have expected by now.

Likewise, Schreiner said AmaWaterways has some specials out but is being careful to avoid a repeat of the discounting the industry saw in 2016 following terror attacks in Europe the preceding year.

"When you go out with discounting and special offers, it's difficult to pull them back in," Schreiner said. "So overall, for 2019, we have much less discounting than we had in 2017 and 2016."

Wolfgang Luftner, co-owner of Luftner Cruises, the parent of Amadeus River Cruises, which is launching its 15th ship this month, said that Europe overall is also seeing a slowdown in travel from the U.K. because of Brexit. Even so, he said, "The rivers are still strong."

The U.K.-based air travel analytics company ForwardKeys said earlier this month that summer bookings from the U.K. to EU countries are lagging 4.6% compared with last year, as Britain prepares for its first post-Brexit vacations.

Instead, many Brits appear to be flocking to destinations in the southern Mediterranean, ForwardKeys said. Turkey, it said, is seeing a 31% increase over last year, and Tunisia, Egypt and Jamaica are also doing very well.

Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights for ForwardKeys said, "Uncertainty over Brexit is clearly affecting people's thinking about [vacation] travel plans."

James Hill, a U.K. travel advisor who specializes in river cruising, said, "Sales are down this year, and there is no doubt at all that Brexit has had a negative impact on consumer confidence overall with respect to booking trips to Europe."

Hill added that price increases and dynamic exchange rates are also taking a toll.

"My age of client remembers having to apply to take a 50-pound maximum to Europe in the days of currency control," he said. "So they are wary of lengthy passport queues at big European airports if we cannot enter the European passport [queue]."

More importantly, he said, supply keeps growing and shows no sign of abating.

"I think the point where demand exceeded supply across the total season was reached a couple of years ago but was hidden by prime months being 100% full," he said. "Various operators have been looking to maintain their accustomed high occupancy figures, which has now become a general fight across the whole niche, with big operators who have never discounted for the first time offering price reductions on 2019 sailings."

Pete Larson, a North Dakota-based travel advisor who specializes in river cruises, agreed.

"Lines like Viking have been expanding so fast that they've saturated the market," Larson said. "It is likely that cruise lines have also expanded into new areas."

In addition, he said, more itinerary choices result in repeat clients moving away from the main rivers of the past. 

"Most new river cruisers start out on the Danube or Rhine and then move on to France or something more exotic," he said. "Growing pains are likely to continue until supply and demand equal out."

Until that happens, consumers will continue to enjoy deals and low prices. As Larson wrote in a recent Facebook post about specials from Crystal, "Water levels are back to normal, crowds are thinner and pricing is amazingly low."

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