The river cruise industry is booming. Travel agents have seen a huge demand for river cruises, with more than 61% of travellers booking river cruises, according to the Cruise Line International Association.
So why are people opting for these river cruises — and why now?
Perhaps it’s because these cruises offer a more refined, intimate, and cultural experience than the behemoth ocean liners. They also allow guests to embark right in the center of the cities, and enjoy coastal scenery of the riverbanks the entire ride.
Luxury cruise ship operator, Viking River Cruises, has carved a niche for itself as the premiere river cruise ship company. It’s grown at an average rate of 31% per year — far more than its river cruise competitors, which have grown at about 11% per year. (Compare that to ocean liners, which are only growing at an average rate of 5% per year.)
Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking Cruises, attributes the growth of Viking to the fact that people seem to be losing interest in the massive ocean cruises and opting for a more intimate cruising experience.
“In the ocean industry, the ships have become huge, and people don’t necessarily go on ocean trips to see places,” Hagen said. “They’re sick and tired of big ships. River cruising is a much better way of travelling. They’re small ships, and you can go from Amsterdam to Budapest, dock in the middle of town with no queues, and there’s something to see all along the way. It’s a huge difference.”
To demonstrate the difference, Hagen called ocean cruising “a drinking man’s cruise” and river cruising “a thinking man’s cruise.”
A trip with Viking is a full cultural immersion. There are lectures, language lessons, and unique activities and demonstrations like cuckoo-clock-making, that are meant to shed light on the destinations visited. Even the food aboard the ship reflects the local culture, showcasing regional specialties from each destination.
Viking offers trips throughout Europe, Russia, China, and Egypt, and all of their itineraries integrate destination-specific cultural activities. The Waterways of the Tsars itinerary, for example, is a 13-day trip that takes guests from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Guests who book this itinerary will get personal tours of iconic museums like the Hermitage Museum, interesting lectures about Russia, and the chance to interact with locals in their homes.
“We appeal to the upstairs of people,” Hagen said. “Sure we serve excellent food, but our tours are really for people to continue to educate themselves. Forty-five per cent of our guests have a graduate degree. They’re very interested people who have time.”
Viking tours clearly aren’t for everyone. A rowdy spring-breaker would not enjoy a history lecture about France. But an intellectually-minded retiree would. (The median age for Viking travellers is 55.)
Viking also offers state-of-the-art green ships with luxurious guest rooms, fine restaurants, and nice extras like putting greens and herb gardens on the deck. But the river ships are small, with a capacity of about 190 passengers.
Another perk? The fact that everything — excursions, meals, alcohol, Wi-Fi and more — is included in the initial booking price.
Viking recently added 16 new ships, and they’re planning to add another 10 more by 2016. They’re dominating the river cruise industry, and that’s probably because the company has spent more than $US500 million on marketing — you may have seen their ads on “Downton Abbey.”
“I think river cruising has a bright future,” Hagen said. “Ocean cruising will continue to grow too, but at a much slower rate. They’re bigger ships and a bigger, more mature industry. We’re newer. We have a great product, and we will continue to build as fast as we can — like hell.”
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