Ama Magna rendering river cruise

More British passengers took a river cruise than ever before in 2017, with numbers topping a record 200,000 for the first time and marking a 21 per cent increase on 2016, according to the latest annual figures released September 3 by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

A total of 210,400 Brits cruised on rivers last year -- up from 174,400 in 2016 -- with the fastest growth on European sailings, which accounted for 90 per cent of all bookings. The Rhine and Danube remain the two most popular destinations for river cruises. However, the latest statistics show a big increase in UK bookings on Portugal's Douro and the Russian waterways, where passenger numbers rose by 85 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively.

The report revealed that, farther afield, India is becoming a 'hot destination', with the Ganges and Brahmaputra together seeing a 27.5 per cent increase in UK travellers last year. Brits are also returning to the Nile, where there was a 14 per cent rise in numbers compared with 2016, and collectively the Nile, Mekong and Irrawaddy attracted the bulk of passengers -- two-thirds in total -- heading to exotic destinations outside Europe.

Announcing the latest figures, CLIA Deputy Chair Giles Hawke said: "This is an exciting first for the UK river cruise industry, with passengers topping 200,000 for the first time. When you look back, there were 120,000 passengers in 2012, and numbers have continued to rise year on year with a record increase between 2016 and 2017.

"River cruising has continued to evolve with the introduction of options such as family cruises and health and wellness cruises, and more and more ships are being built, with eight new ships being launched in 2019."

These will include AmaWaterways' revolutionary 196-passenger AmaMagna, which will be almost double the width of the line's other Danube river ships.

Hawke said that the average length of river cruises had risen slightly to nearly eight nights, showing that longer sailings were becoming more popular.

Andy Harmer, senior vice president of membership and CLIA UK and Ireland director, added: "With continued investment and innovation, the growth in river cruising continues to be an important part of the overall cruise industry."

While the majority of destinations are booming, the report also showed that rivers such as the Italian Po and German Elbe attracted fewer UK passengers in 2017, with the biggest drop in China, which is down by more than 50 per cent from 2016.

--By Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor