Making a run at the cost-conscious consumer

At a time when other river cruise lines are scaling back on growth, French river cruise company CroisiEurope this week announced it will launch seven new river cruise vessels this year and next.

Granted not all seven are full-size European river cruise ships — two are 22-passenger canal barges, and one is launching on the Mekong — but still, seven ships is worth noting, especially for a company many of us here in the U.S. didn’t know much, if anything, about as recently as a couple years ago.

By the time these seven vessels are launched, CroisiEurope will have 46 company-owned vessels in its fleet. In 2014, the company carried some 200,000 cruise passengers (compared to the approximately 250,000 passengers carried by Viking River Cruises), although only about 8,000 to 9,000 of those hailed from the U.S. But CroisiEurope is growing its U.S customer base, and quickly.

So, what’s the deal with Croisi? Well, the company saw an opening at the lower end of the river cruise market and it is clearly going after it. For a long time, river cruising has grappled with a reputation of being a bit pricey. Travel agents would lament that while they wanted to sell more river cruises, especially since the very inclusive vacation style generally offers lofty commissions, not all of their clients could afford it.

Therein lies the opportunity for CroisiEurope, which after 40 years of building river cruise ships in Europe, is banking on its home-turf shipbuilding ties and a more pared down version of river cruising to bring lower prices to market. And while CroisiEurope’s older vessels do not compete with the sleek newbuilds being churned out by U.S.-facing river cruise lines such as Viking, AmaWaterways, Avalon, Uniworld and all the rest, the company has upped its ship design game and its newest batch of river cruise ships is focused on chicer interiors and enhanced amenities.

Another line going after this segment with arguably even chicer ships is Emerald Waterways, the lower-priced sister brand to Scenic. And it is having a good deal of success too. Having only launched in 2014, Emerald is on pace to have seven river cruise ships in Europe by 2017 (its fifth vessel, the 182-passenger Emerald Belle, was slated to launch this spring, but has been set back by a fire in the shipyard).

As river cruising piques more travelers’ interests, and the travel style opens up to a wider audience, there is clearly going to be more demand for and thus greater opportunity to provide a more accessible river cruising experience.

River cruise news to watch in 2016


KV Ganges Voyager

As I look ahead at what news the river cruise industry will bring in 2016, I’ve got my eye on several stories and developments.
As we kick off the year, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is launching its first-ever program on India’s Ganges River with Haimark Travel’s luxury vessel, the 56-passenger Ganges Voyager II. We’re bound to start hearing some of the initial feedback and reviews from that product launch in the coming days and weeks after completion of the first few cruises.
Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

This spring, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the launch of CroisiEurope’s 80-passenger Elbe Princesse, a paddlewheeler the French company has custom-built for Germany’s shallow Elbe River. And of course I’ll be looking for new innovations and ideas among all the ship launches in Europe this spring. With Viking River Cruises, Amawaterways, Avalon Waterways, Tauck, Scenic and Emerald Waterways all adding inventory this year, someone is bound to surprise us with something, no?

Come summer, I’ll be looking for word on how the new Adventures by Disney river cruising product plays out after the first sailings begin in July on AmaWaterways’ AmaStella. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say one of the developments I’m most curious about is the introduction of Crystal Cruises’ first river cruise effort, the renovation and relaunch of the former Peter Deilmann Mozart, which will set sail anew on July 13.

This will be our first glance not only at Crystal’s version of river cruising but at how an ocean cruise line interprets the river cruise market. I, for one, am agog. And Crystal only has additional excitement planned for us in 2017 when it introduces us to its version of four river cruising newbuilds.

Elsewhere in the river cruising world, I’m wondering how and whether the Nile will pull out of its perpetual slump, and if the Amazon will see an uptick in interest due to the Rio Olympics. I’m also following developments in Asia, where Pandaw River Expeditions keeps surprising with new river routes and other companies keep adding capacity.

And imagine, that’s just the stuff we more or less already know about. There’s no telling what river cruising bombshells (either good or bad) are yet to be dropped on us. Take cover!

Low water levels plague Europe river cruises

With a low water level, a large stretch of the Elbe’s riverbed was exposed in August near Magdeburg, Germany. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
 

A hot and dry summer in Europe has led to lower-than-normal water levels on portions of the Danube and Elbe rivers throughout the summer, and has forced river cruise lines to alter their itineraries during July, August and now into September.

“Water levels on the Elbe and Danube rivers are currently lower than normal and Viking has had to make adjustments to the cruise schedules of several ships sailing these rivers,” Viking River Cruises wrote on its website this week.

Five Viking cruises have been altered this week, four of which include a ship swap. Passengers will be transferred in order to avoid a low-water area of the Elbe River that ships cannot bypass.

Additionally, Viking’s Sept. 2 “Grand European Tour” from Budapest to Amsterdam, scheduled to depart on the Viking Aegir, will begin in Komarom, Hungary, on the Viking Embla. Viking will provide transfers from Budapest to Komarom.

“These are currently the only sailings we expect to be altered by the low water on the rivers,” Viking stated.

But low water levels have been a problem all summer. The low levels on the Elbe came during a year when Viking launched two new vessels on the river in eastern Germany. Other river cruise lines have avoided the Elbe in part because of the challenges presented when the water level is low.

The Danube River is one that all the major river cruise lines sail. The area on the Danube where the low waters have posed a problem is the 75-mile stretch between Regensburg and Passau in Germany.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection had to alter eight Danube River sailings in July and August, which included having guests swap ships from one side of the low waters to the other. The company canceled its Aug. 9 “European Jewels” cruise on the Maria Theresa, deciding that there wouldn’t be enough actual cruising in the trip to justify the departure.

“We sincerely appreciate the understanding and support our guests and travel industry partners have shown during this challenging time,” Uniworld wrote on its website.

Avalon Waterways wrote on its Facebook page last week that the river levels on the Danube had again begun to recede.

“Danube River waters receded over the weekend and early this week. Once again, the waters between Regensburg and Passau are beginning to delay and/or stall ship passage. We are fervently working to keep cruise itinerary disruptions to a minimum. If or when cruise itineraries are altered, however, we will provide affected travelers with alternate opportunities to see and explore the best Europe has to offer,” Avalon wrote on Facebook.

The post elicited a string of comments from passengers, some concerned about current and upcoming sailings, others with positive messages of support and kudos for how Avalon handled past sailings that were disrupted due to low water levels.

The forecast is calling for rain in the coming days, according to Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, which has not had to alter any of its Danube itineraries yet this summer. Schreiner is hoping that some much-needed precipitation along the Danube will help bring the river’s water levels back up.