What Viking’s growth means for river cruising

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The news that Viking River Cruises will add 24 Longships to its fleet signals two things: That following a brief lull in shipbuilding momentum, Viking is experiencing strong enough demand to merit a hefty commitment to more ships, and that the river cruise industry at large is entering a new growth phase.
So, let’s start with Viking. With the addition of 24 vessels in addition to the existing 65 ships already in the company’s river fleet (though we don’t know if and how many ships the company may retire in the coming years), one has to ask, what is in Viking’s secret sauce that lets it sustain such growth?
While only Viking is privy to the nuances of its success, the line has certain unique features that have likely helped fueled its expansion and popularity.
For one, Viking has become a household name in river cruising thanks in large part to its ads that blanketed popular TV programs like Downton Abbey on PBS and that air on National Public Radio. That kind of brand recognition definitely gives it an advantage.
In addition to product awareness, Viking has found the sweet spot in offering well-designed hardware at affordable prices. The line’s newest vessels, the Viking Longships, launched in 2012, feature open and airy public areas and contemporary Scandinavian design that makes them feel like unstuffy, sleek floating hotels. They also offer a wide range of stateroom options, from a modest 150-square-foot lower deck cabin with small windows to 275-square-foot veranda suites with step-out balconies and 445-square-foot explorer suites with a separate living room and bedroom.
It doesn’t hurt that Viking is also known for its attractive deals. For travellers who find river cruising to be too expensive, Viking’s promotions make its cruises more attainable.
Viking also pays agent commission on all components of its river cruises, including port charges and airline fees, which few other lines do.
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While Viking’s fleet expansion always makes good headline fodder, Viking isn’t the only river cruise line that is growing. AmaWaterways recently announced that it will launch three vessels in 2019, including the double-wide 196-passenger AmaMagna, and this spring the last two of Crystal Cruises’ four new-build river ships set sail (the first two launched last fall).

The steady stream of ship orders suggests that demand for river cruising hasn’t let up. So, can Europe’s rivers sustain all the inventory? Well, there are certain issues the industry needs to consider as it continues on its shipbuilding path, including staggering itineraries so that that numerous ships aren’t all docked in the same ports at the same times. And docking space itself needs to be re-evaluated and solutions explored to ensure that ports don’t get overcrowded.

Physical growth logistics aside, however, river cruise lines often point out that the demand for the new ships is there. The number of river cruise passengers is still a small fraction of the number of ocean cruise passengers, meaning that many cruisers have yet to discover river cruising. For the river cruise lines, that fact alone signals that this segment is poised to continue on its current expansion path for years, if not decades, to come.

Luxury on the rise on Southeast Asia’s rivers

By Michelle Baran

The temples of Bagan, Myanmar.After Europe’s busy ship-christening season this spring, the river cruise spotlight is shifting to Southeast Asia for the fall, where the latest lineup of river ship launches is showcasing an ever-escalating level of luxury, service and amenities. So much so that it begs the question of whether this new crop of vessels could actually surpass the standards that have been set by Europe’s river vessels.

“It’s a very fair question to ask if [the ships currently launching in Southeast Asia] are in fact more luxurious that what is on offer in Europe. I wouldn’t say that they are more luxurious, but it’s a different definition of luxury,” said Tom Markwell, managing partner, sales and marketing, at Haimark Travel, which this month launched the first two vessels to set sail for the exotic river and small-ship cruise company.

In September, Haimark launched the 68-passenger Mekong Navigator in Vietnam and Cambodia, and the 16-passenger Irrawaddy Explorer in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma), vessels that are helping to usher in a new generation of luxury service and amenities on river cruises in this part of the world.

Others are raising the bar higher, too, such as Sanctuary Retreats’ 42-passenger all-suite luxury vessel the Sanctuary Ananda, debuting next month in Myanmar, and AmaWaterways’ 56-passenger AmaPura, which sets sail in Myanmar in November.

Those will be followed by more impressive river cruise launches in Southeast Asia in 2015 (see related story, “The latest batch of Southeast Asia ships”).

Vietnam vs. Vienna

What these new vessels represent is not just continued growth in demand for river cruising in Southeast Asia — where new ship launches on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River are shadowing an initial boom on the Mekong River that began several years ago — but an elevation of product in those destinations that is bringing it closer to what river cruisers have come to expect in Europe.

Life on the Mekong.Not long after introducing the Mekong in 2009, AmaWaterways created a separate business division for its non-European product called AmaVoyages. The idea was to manage expectations a bit — a subtle way to let passengers know that river cruising in destinations such as Southeast Asia and Botswana, where the company has exotic river itineraries, does not mimic the product in Europe.

It’s not that the product is inferior; it’s just different. In fact, river cruise operators have noted that while some things are harder to deliver in Southeast Asia, such as decent docking facilities (a challenge that is mostly out of their hands), other things can be easier, such as high service levels. And then there is the biggest difference: the destinations themselves.

“The Mekong, Tonle River and Tonle Lake are a much more important lifeline for the locals than European rivers,” said Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, about the major waterways of Vietnam and Cambodia on which the company sails.

“In Vietnam and Cambodia most of the daily life happens on the water. There are floating markets, floating villages, and fishing is a main source of local nutrition. Many sightseeing excursions are by boat, whereas in Europe, the ships are used as luxurious floating hotels to take you from city to city. On the Mekong more happens on the river than in the towns.”

River cruising in Vietnam vs. Vienna is not surprisingly a vastly difference experience. And despite the economic and infrastructure disparity between Europe and Southeast Asia, river cruise passengers “should not expect anything subpar” in Southeast Asia, Schreiner said.

Bigger staterooms, better service

Angkor Wat, CambodiaIndeed, as river cruise operators such as AmaWaterways continue to improve the product in Southeast Asia, the results mark a consummate change from the region’s earlier generation of ships and the sophisticated vessels being rolled out today.

Schreiner noted that the company’s 124-passenger AmaDara, debuting on the Mekong next year with twin-balcony staterooms and two restaurants instead of just one, “is a testament to how AmaVoyages is able to continuously improve in exotic destinations.”

Another prime example is the Sanctuary Ananda, which Sanctuary Resorts, a company owned by Abercrombie & Kent, is launching next month in Myanmar. The Ananda marks Sanctuary’s first project in Myanmar, and the company is giving ample attention to the hardware.

For one, the suites will range from 291 square feet to a 721-square-foot suite, a marked increase in space compared with many European river vessels. That added spaciousness is possible in Southeast Asia because there are no locks on the waterways and thus fewer restrictions on ship dimensions.

River lines with product in Southeast Asia are also putting a much bigger emphasis on service than they have in the past, providing private butler service for some of the highest category suite guests, for instance.

The spa element is becoming an increasingly important part of the Southeast Asia river cruising experience, as well, and river cruise operators have been steadily amping up their spa service offerings.

“It’s the hospitality factor that will allow us to surpass European river cruise product along the rivers of Asia,” said Haimark’s Markwell.

“It’s the gentle, kind and most of all sincere willingness to serve the guests that blows veteran cruisers among the European waterways out of the water.”