The river cruising industry continues to grow and innovate, hoping to attract further customers with updated styles and experiences. The sector is channelling change across ships, ports of call and much more..

Booking patterns

New and refurbished ships, more itineraries and exciting shore excursions coupled with increased onboard attractions are among the innovations contributing to a boom in river cruising, which has seen a record number of UK passengers take to the world’s waterways.

Andy Harmer, CLIA UK & Ireland Director, says: “The UK river cruise sector is seeing continued growth year-on-year. In 2017, the UK river cruise market reached 210,400 passengers, against 174,000 in 2016. Figures for 2018 won’t be published until June but CLIA is confidentially predicting another year of strong growth.

“European river cruises, which account for almost 90% of bookings, were the driving force behind this exceptional growth. The Rhine and Danube lead the way, however, it is eastern and southern European rivers such as the Douro and Russian waterways which are seeing the most growth.”

David Sharman, Commercial Director at Newmarket Holidays, agrees. “We have recently launched our 2020 river cruise programme which is dedicated entirely to the A-Rosa portfolio across the key rivers of Europe. We are delighted to be featuring the Douro for the first time next year, with the A-Rosa Alva, the line’s newest ship. This river is growing in popularity and we are now able to offer agents a destination we haven’t featured before. It is a perfect choice for customers who have sailed the popular rivers such as the Danube and the Rhine and are now looking for something a little different.”

Guests are also looking for new experiences. John Fair, UK Sales Director for CroisiEurope, says: “We’ve added an additional ship on the Rhone, which continues to grow in popularity thanks to the combination of beautiful landscapes, world class vineyards, iconic cities and time in France’s gastronomic capital, Lyon. Our gourmet-themed cruises on the Rhone and our Beaujolais cruises are in great demand, as are rivers such as the Guadalquivir and the Loire which are unique to CroisiEurope.”

Once the realm of mature clients, there’s a growing trend towards cruises aimed at younger travellers and multi-generational families. Tauck spearheaded dedicated family sailings and A-Rosa offers free cruises for children under 15 on every departure. U by Uniworld - recently rebranded U River Cruises - pushed the boat out with its eye-catching ships The A and The B aimed at the “young at heart”, and this year Amadeus River Cruises has sailings for millennials.

Ship-shape new vessels

Larger and greener ships are among the latest developments in the new generation of river cruise vessels. The big news, quite literally, is AmaWaterways’ recently launched AmaMagna. The 196-passenger vessel, double the width of standard river ships, has four restaurants, five bars, a pool, watersports platform and private speedboat.

American Cruise Lines has named the third ship in its Modern Riverboat Series, American Jazz. American Song is already sailing on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and American Harmony begins cruising the Mississippi in August. The line claims the industry's smallest carbon footprint.

Avalon Waterways, which recently launched its latest all-suite ship Avalon Envision on the Danube, is providing agents with new ‘cruise only’ pricing options across its fleet-wide programme. Additionally, in 2020 the line will introduce shorter three, four and five-day itineraries which are ideal for first-time river cruise clients looking to test the water.

Also next year, APT Travelmarvel is introducing three new Contemporary River Ships with features including a garden terrace and pub-style McGeary’s Bar. And a significant development for the River Cruise Line will be the launch of the 96-passenger MS Arena, a four-star ship with hotel-style beds in every cabin plus French balcony staterooms.

Onboard activities

River cruising will always be a leisurely way to travel, however a key trend to attract active passengers is onboard wellness.

This year Avalon Waterways introduced Adventure Hosts on its European ships to run fitness classes and other heart-pumping activities. These complement the Avalon Fresh menu, available across the fleet, which focuses on healthy eating.

AmaWaterways has also rolled out a fleet-wide fitness programme, with up to six daily exercise classes. At APT there are new multi-tasting entertainment duos responsible for organising daytime fitness sessions alongside more traditional entertainment such as trivia quizzes.

Once a rarity on rivers, an increasing number of ships have pools and spas. Steve Goodenough, Managing Director of the River Cruise Line, says: “In keeping with the provision of fitness and wellbeing facilities in hotels and resorts, there is a growing trend towards an expectation that river cruise ships are similarly equipped. We are delighted that our new ship MS Arena has its own well-equipped wellness suite and clients can book a premium package that includes free use of the suite.”

Following an eight-month refurbishment Uniworld’s River Royale has re-launched in France as SS Bon Voyage, the line’s sixth Super Ship which features an infinity pool.

Rivers and ports of call

The Douro is this year’s hottest destination. CroisiEurope launched the MS Amalia Rodrigues as its sixth vessel and third premium-rated ship on the ‘River of Gold’ and A-Rosa recently inaugurated its first Douro vessel, A-Rosa Alva.

Rob Stapley, Senior Cruise Product Manager at Titan Travel, says: “We’ve seen a huge growth in popularity for the beautiful Douro River in Portugal for 2019. Titan has exclusive sailings onboard MS Gil Eanes and the brand new MS Amalia Rodrigues, and for a more luxurious and intimate experience guests can take a trip on the 28-passenger Spirit of Chartwell, the royal barge used for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.”

Further afield, there’s growing interest in Asia. Pandaw has launched three new routes on the Ganges, plus a combination India itinerary taking in the Ganges and Brahmaputra. The small ship specialist also has a new 14-passenger ship, Kanee Pandaw, capable of sailing to remote stretches of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. Heritage River Journeys, which sells through Kuoni and Abercrombie & Kent, predicts demand for Ganges cruises after its riverboat Ganges Voyager II starred in Cruising with Jane McDonald.

Shearings has a range of new worldwide tours that include a cruise element on rivers including the Amazon, Yangtze and Mekong. And later this year Emerald Waterways launches custom-built Emerald Harmony, which can sail into Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, unlike larger vessels.

Shore excursions & activities

Flexible shore tour programmes and active options are setting the pace for the latest excursion programmes. In addition to dedicated Cruise & Walk itineraries, CroisiEurope offers flexible excursion packages so guests can choose to do as much or as little as they want. Another line with á la carte excursions is Amadeus River Cruises where passengers can ‘pick and mix’ shore tours to suit their interests.

For inclusive lines that include shore excursions in the fare there are plenty of options for guests that want to get up and go. Avalon Waterways was the first line to offer Active & Discovery itineraries and the sailings on the Rhine and Danube have been extended to the Rhone for 2019. Passengers can head off on guided jogging tours, hikes, bike rides and kayaking trips.

Uniworld is offering more active excursions with 'Let’s Go', featuring golf, gondola rowing and more. APT offers 'Freedom of Choice' where tours are split into four categories with active options including a Bavarian dance class or hike to the Petrovaradin Fortress over the Danube.