State of the Industry Report: River Cruising

December 4, 2012
(11:00 a.m. EDT) -- Despite the fact that river cruising is the fastest-growing style of cruising in the U.K. (as well as in the U.S. and Australia), it's also, ironically, somewhat unknown to many "mainstream" cruisers.

Perhaps more surprisingly, at the second annual Association of Cruise Experts (ACE) River Cruise Expo in Amsterdam last month –- the only event in the world dedicated specifically to river cruising –- some 90 percent of the travel agents who attended had never previously experienced river cruise travel.

Part of the Passenger Shipping Association, ACE is tasked with the mission to promote training for travel agents who sell cruises so that those agents can, in turn, get the message out to consumers. As mainstream ships, from mega-liners to luxury vessels, are becoming more and more well-known amongst the travelling public, ACE has ramped up efforts to educate agents and consumers about the lesser-known riverboat cruise lines.

Cruise Critic was on-hand at the ACE event, and here are some of the key points that we discovered during the two-day series of seminars and riverboat tours:

Experts, from Uniworld's Wesley Bosnic to river cruise consultant Albert Aird, talked about the most popular rivers for cruising. An easy number one is the Rhine River, whose primary ports are in Germany (notably the stretch that's called “castle gorge”), France and Switzerland. Second is the Danube, which trawls through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and onwards down to the Black Sea.

The third most popular place in Europe to take a river cruise, according to one speaker, was France's Rhone/Seine. The Rhone, which travels through Provence (typically between Lyon and Avignon or Arles) is utterly distinct from the Seine. That river focuses on Paris as its primary port, and its other greatest hits ports take you to Giverny, Honfleur and Normandy. However it's fair to say that many river lines offer combination cruises that feature both itineraries (with a bus ride between Paris and Lyon to connect them).

Between 2008 – 2011, U.K. holiday trips abroad fell 8.7 percent. But: European river cruising gained by 48 percent.

The average fare for a river cruise? At £1,574 per river cruising does sound expensive, but look beyond the price. A similar length European cruise on, for instance, Celebrity's Eclipse, will cost you about £1,200 – and that does not include the standards that come with river voyages, such as wine and beer with dinner, shore excursions, pre-cruise hotel, and gratuities.

Last year, it was estimated that the number of people from the U.K. who took river cruises was the equivalent of the population of Exeter (about 115,000).

Why is river cruising growing in popularity? Consider that, at the ACE River Expo, we learned that 60 percent of travellers who cruise on a river are repeaters. That means 40 percent are river virgins. And most new-to-river passengers come from ocean cruising –- as about 67 percent have tried lines like P&O, Fred. Olsen, Royal Caribbean, etc.

In addition to the standard Rhine, Danube, Seine and Rhone itineraries, new and different rivers in Europe are emerging. These include France's Bordeaux (via the Dordogne and Garonne rivers), Portugal's Porto (which nips into Spain), and Italy's Po.

Certainly river cruising isn't limited to Europe. Russia's Moscow to St. Petersburg run is starting to catch on. And even if Egypt's Nile right now is -- due to the Arab Spring conflicts and continuing Mideast unrest -- way down from its peak of 288 ships, Asia remains incredibly popular, with options that include China's Yangtze and Cambodia and Vietnam's Mekong. Also emerging: Burma's Irrawaddy and the Amazon.

The River Cruise Line's Paul Sharp, another of the speakers at ACE's River Cruise Expo, summed it up when he said: “River cruises are exactly where ocean cruising was 25 years ago, and we know what a juggernaut that's turned into.”

Sharp's statement is bold to be sure, but if river cruising continues to grow at its current rate, the prediction may well be on the conservative side.

-- Carolyn Brown, Editor-in-Chief