River cruise news to watch

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Bohemia Rhapsody New Year’s Eve Cruise | Pragues Eve Cruise | Prague

Last year was a challenging one for river cruising, so as we round the bend into 2017, it’s worth pointing out some buzz-worthy stories on the horizon that could help the industry get its groove back.

When it comes to buzz, we can certainly count on Crystal Cruises, which will unveil two of its first four “river yachts” this summer – the Crystal Bach and Crystal Mahler (the Crystal Ravel and Crystal Debussy will follow in spring 2018). The company promises some pretty over-the-top features on its first set of river newbuilds, such as multiple, sleek-looking dining venues with open-seating, and all staterooms built above the waterline – something that hasn’t been done before on a river cruise ship. The renderings released of the yachts last summer evoked chic and contemporary interiors, and river cruise insiders are surely champing at the bit to see how Crystal delivers on its lofty river cruising promises.

Speaking of buzz, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection is bound to help reignite some much-needed hype for river cruising in France, which took a big hit following the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris. The company remains committed to launching the latest in its Super Ship class of vessels, the 128-passenger S.S. Joie de Vivre, on France’s Seine River.

In true Uniworld style, the company didn’t hold back with the Joie de Vivre, which will be christened in March. Features include a collection of fine art and antiques acquired from both auction houses and private collections, and a pool area with a hydraulic floor that by night can turn into Le Club l’Esprit, a dance floor or outdoor cinema. Travel Weekly will be there to report on the unveiling of the Joie de Vivre firsthand.

It will also be Adventures by Disney’s second year offering river cruises in partnership with AmaWaterways, and we’ll be watching to see how that product continues to grow and evolve. Disney has already made some tweaks including raising the minimum age from 4 to 6 and adding an adults-only sailing.

CroisiEurope’s ongoing and arguably aggressive expansion will continue in 2017 with four new ships: a 132-passenger vessel on Portugal’s Douro River; the 106-passenger Symphonie II on the Rhine; the 135-passegner Douce France II on the Danube; and the 60-passenger Indochine II on the Mekong. The French company is coming on strong and it definitely has our attention.

In fact, Portugal’s Douro River has been experiencing growing interest of late, with Emerald Waterways also launching a new ship there this year: the 112-passenger Emerald Radiance (the Scenic-owned company is also launching the 138-guest Emerald Liberte on France’s Rhone and Saone rivers this year, hopefully also sparking renewed interest in France).

Closer to home, the American Queen Steamboat Company will be adding the 166-passenger American Duchess on the Mississippi River in June, a former gaming vessel that is being converted into an all-suite paddlewheeler with unique loft suites.

Lastly, we’ll have our eyes on developments on exotic rivers. Momentum seems to have quieted a bit on rivers such as Southeast Asia’s Mekong and on China’s Yangtze, so we’ll be watching to see how much and whether river cruise lines invest beyond Europe, including in places such as India where it’s rumored that AmaWaterways may be eyeing the possibility of a new ship in 2018.

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2016 River cruise Outlook

by industry sector

In 2016, after several years of inexhaustible growth in the river cruise sector, some of the bigger players are taking a bit of a breather (and by breather, we mean not building as many new ships as in past years), while several newcomers and new products take a fresh stab at the market.

Most notable among the river cruise rookies is Crystal Cruises, which this year announced that it would be entering the river-cruise market with a fleet of five luxury yacht-style river vessels. The first of those will be the Crystal Mozart, formerly a Peter Deilmann vessel known as the Mozart, originally built in 1987. Crystal has four newbuild vessels on order for 2017.

Following an extensive renovation, the Crystal Mozart will set sail on July 13, offering passengers their first glimpse of Crystal’s vision of river cruising. That will mean fewer, larger suites after the company transforms the 203-passenger Mozart to a 160-passenger capacity.

The updated Crystal Mozart will feature suites ranging in size from 203 square feet to the 860-square-foot, two-bedroom Crystal Suites, the largest on any river.

Crystal also is designing its itineraries so that much of the sailing takes place during the day, giving guests the opportunity to explore destinations in the evening, with ships docked in port overnight.

It will be interesting to see how this nighttime-focused river cruise experience will resonate with river cruisers. According to Crystal, one big advantage will be fewer crowds in port, something that has become a bit of a challenge in Europe. Crystal has said it also plans to  get passengers off ship as much as possible while docked, with onshore culinary experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants, evening events and entertainment.

Bring the kiddies

While Crystal will be making a run to convert the high-end, ocean-cruise customer to rivers, another new entrant into the river-cruise market, Adventures by Disney, will be attempting to get more families to sail the Danube.
Adventures by Disney announced a partnership with AmaWaterways to develop a series of family-friendly cruises aboard the 158-passenger AmaStella in 2016.

To better accommodate families, the AmaStella will usher in several new hardware concepts for AmaWaterways, including 12 staterooms that can accommodate up to three family members each; six sets of adjoining cabins connected via an internal doorway, accommodating families of up to five; and four suites with convertible sofa beds that can accommodate families of up to four.

While courting families isn’t entirely new for river cruising (companies like Tauck and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection have been doing it for years), actually designing a ship around the needs of families is new. And Disney will be taking the family-friendly concept a step further, for example, by having eight Adventures by Disney guides on each of its sailings in addition to the existing AmaWaterways crew.

The Adventures by Disney sailings will also feature movies, karaoke and daily biking trips for younger passengers, as well as family-friendly excursions such as a horse show at the Lazar Equestrian Park in Hungary and a private marionette performance and strudel-making demonstration at the Schonbrunn Palace in Austria.

Other river-cruise newbies are looking to introduce demographics into the arena as well, including Canadian tour operator G Adventures, which is hoping to get millennials onboard. G Adventures is introducing river cruises on the Mekong and Ganges rivers and on the canals of France’s Burgundy region in 2016, in addition to its existing Peruvian Amazon cruises. The line’s goal is to make what has traditionally been a higher-end travel product more accessible to younger, less- affluent clients.

Exotic river lust

Uniworld’s much-anticipated Ganges River program in India officially sets sail in January, when the company begins chartering Haimark’s new luxury cruiser, the 56-passenger Ganges Voyager II. Uniworld’s new Ganges program promises to bring luxury amenities and services to India’s most notorious inland water route, which is quickly becoming the next river- cruising hot spot.

Exotic river buffs will be happy to note that next year will also see continued development in Southeast Asia, where Pandaw River Expeditions is launching new and uncharted river routes, the latest being a 2016 sailing that travels the length of the Mekong River all the way from Thailand through Myanmar and Laos and into China, the first time the company will be offering a sailing that goes into China.

Scenic and Emerald Waterways also are adding capacity on the popular Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia next year.

Ongoing growth in Europe, U.S.

It wouldn’t be river cruising if there were not a continued influx of ships on next year’s agenda, namely on the always-popular European streams. The world’s largest river-cruise line, Viking River Cruises, will add six newbuilds, for a total of 52 ships in five years. Amawaterways, Avalon Waterways, Tauck and Scenic are each christening two new vessels in Europe next year, and four-star tenderfoot Emerald Waterways is adding a fifth ship in Europe.

French river-cruise line CroisiEurope is celebrating 40 years in business next year as it continues to make more noise in the U.S. market with updated ships meant to meet U.S. standards, and the company will unveil its second European paddlewheeler (a unique concept for sailing shallower waters) on the Elbe River in spring.

Another paddlewheeler, American Cruise Lines’ newest U.S.-based vessel, will launch in early 2016, marking the third Mississippi paddlewheeler that the line has built from the ground up. It joins the American Eagle, which launched in April, and the Queen of the Mississippi, which set sail in 2012.

American Cruise Lines to give U.S. river cruising a new look