After more than a decade of rapid growth, the river cruise segment is showing its first signs of maturation. The pace of new ship introductions and passenger growth is slowing from the peaks experienced earlier in the decade, and the industry is diversifying to fuel its future growth.
“We all remember when demand outpaced capacity and you needed to book your customers 18 to 24 months in advance,” recalls John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Network, Leisure Group & Hotels. Driven by aggressive advertising programs, river cruising became the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. Between 2004 and 2015, the compound annual growth for North American-sourced river cruise passengers was a staggering 14 percent, compared with three percent for the more developed ocean cruise business. In 2016, 1.4 million people sailed Europe’s rivers, with 40 percent coming from North America and 30 percent from Germany.
The aging baby boom generation’s affluence and desire for new experiences helped to fuel this growth. “The largest target market is baby boomers,” says Lori Sheller, vice president of cruise development at Tourico Holidays, a travel wholesaler. But with demand slowing, “we are slowly seeing changes in the river product to accommodate families and even Millennials,” Sheller says.
With over 150 new ships competing on the market, river cruise operators are now offering traditional travel industry promotions, like free or reduced airfare, gratuities, onboard credits and beverage packages. River cruise lines are also beginning to compete by installing more luxurious amenities. Viking River Cruises took a quantum leap in 2012 when it introduced its Longship design, which features suites, private verandahs and an outdoor dining area while also increasing capacity. Viking now has a fleet of 45 Longships sailing in Europe.
In order to attract new market demographics and appeal to changing travel patterns, the river cruise lines are also introducing new marketing programs. Viking, for example, launched a direct marketing program in China with three European vessels dedicated to the Chinese market.
AmaWaterways is introducing hiking and biking excursions, food and wine experiences, and multigenerational travel including programs with Disney and Backroads. Many of the ships are also offering wellness travel with onboard exercise facilities, pools and spas.
Several new competitors are entering the river cruise market, including Crystal Cruises, one of the leaders in luxury ocean cruising. Crystal is introducing four new deluxe vessels they are calling “river yachts,” with all-suite accommodations and butler service. Another ocean cruise line, Fred. Olsen Cruises, has announced plans for its first river cruise program in 2018.
The most closely-watched launch may be U by Uniworld, a new brand dedicated to the 21 to 44-age bracket. Uniworld is targeting Millennials by offering a more contemporary look onboard, longer port stays, and shore programs that incorporate local bars, restaurants and adventures.
The industry is also experiencing growth in other parts of the world, including China, and a resurgence on the Mississippi River and its tributaries with the American Queen Steamboat Company. High consumer satisfaction with river cruising is also driving the global expansion with travel agents reporting that customers who liked their European river trips are now looking to more exotic itineraries, like cruises on the Amazon and Mekong.
Despite its strong growth, river cruising is still not a “mainstream” product, according to many industry analysts. Given the new entrants to the market and the improved marketing programs, analysts forecast annual growth of five to six percent. “We’ve started to see a more normalized growth rate, but still very healthy growth,” concludes Lovell. “River cruising continues to rank as a top vacation option with our customers.”