Ambitious developments and projects are boosting the river cruise ship market, writes Barry Luthwaite
Over the last fiscal year there has been a consolidation in river cruise vessel ordering, but the emphasis has been on seeking out new routes and negotiating new licences to operate in more countries for maximum voyage penetration.
Firmly under the microscope are Asia and the US, but it is often difficult to clear all hurdles for operation in the US. The battle for ‘river hotel’ bookings has intensified with stiff competition from expedition cruise ships which, although sea going, do tempt a change of appetite for potential passenger choice. Some companies with ocean going liners like Viking Ocean Cruises and the Genting Group offer choices of a combined deepsea and river cruise experience in one booking by passengers. This is likely to grow in popularity as more river destinations beckon, especially those within a short journey from sea ports.
Never content to rest on its laurels Switzerland-based, Norway-operated Viking River Cruises returned to the German yard Neptun Werft for construction of seven more inland cruise ships for delivery in 2019. The owner originally ordered six for north European rivers such as the Main, Rhine and Danube. Neptun Werft previously delivered six units for Viking River Cruises accommodating 190 passengers in 95 cabins.
Known as the Viking Longships design, the 135 m long vessels are specially evolved for north European cruising. An additional seventh vessel was recently added to the new contract to accommodate increasing bookings for Douro river cruising. This vessel requires modifications to the Longships design. It will be the last delivery in September next year and complement cruises already operated. There is intense competition in this region with competing companies Riviera Travel, Emerald Waterways and Scenic Cruise.
Viking River Cruises now covers Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Asia and Egypt and negotiations are in hand for more opportunistic destinations. One bid which has been frustrated by US bureaucracy is for permission to operate on the Mississippi river. The country’s famous Mississippi riverboats may feel a threat from the competition, although many tourists like the feel of history and the old Mississippi steamboat style. Viking River Cruises originally announced a bold plan in March 2015 to order six new vessels designed specifically for Mississippi River cruising. This was then postponed for a year and is still delayed. In order to continue increasing revenue streams from the river cruise boom the Mississippi plan has been “replaced” with the six new north European river cruisers. There is no confirmation the Mississippi expansion has been droppedbut there will be at least a one-year gap for construction of the vessels and conformity with US regulations which can be somewhat onerous.
Ambition for new challenges is not tempered. The Viking Ra will cruise the Nile offering 12-day round trips from Cairo. The vessel was stripped to the bare hull and rebuilt to a modern, all-suite, state-of-the-art unit with a geometric Arabic flavour. She can accommodate 52 guests and is due to deliver into Nile cruising in 2018.
The river cruise owner is a subsidiary of parent owner Viking Ocean Cruises, which has just announced a new agreement in principle with Fincantieri to build six more ocean liners which would take its fleet complement up to 16 ships by 2027, of which four are already commissioned. The combination of river and ocean is a powerful advertising inducement for custom.
With the Mississippi a key attraction for tourists, US companies have shown signs of fine tuning outside competition with newbuildings and conversion/upgrading of existing vessels. American Cruise Line will take delivery of American Constitution and American Song this year. The latter is definitely for Mississippi cruising while the former is slated for coastal itineraries. The vessels are being built by Chesapeake Shipbuilding and will carry 170 and 200 passengers respectively. Additionally, the yard is building four more sister ships to American Song for delivery in 2019 and beyond all destined for the Mississipi River.
An American company will further penetrate the European market in 2018 and 2019. Ama Waterways Cruises was due to commission the 158-passenger capacity sister ships Amalea and Amadora respectively from Vahali Shipyard, Serbia. They will serve the Danube and are members of the CERTO class. The 106-passenger capacity Amadouro will deliver in 2019 and serve the Douro River. The Serbian shipyard has been building river cruise ships for years where, after launching, vessels are taken to the final outfitting yard of Gendt in the Netherlands.
Ama Waterways covers cruising in Europe, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia. AmaMagna is under construction as the biggest vessel in the fleet at 135 m long. It will carry 194 passengers and is twice the width of traditional European river ships. Five-star luxury status applies including 97 cabins most of which offer 100 m2 of space, among the largest in river cruising.
In keeping with today’s new constructions most owners opt for diesel-electric hybrid propulsion for maximum fuel efficiency and emission control consideration. On commissioning in 2019, AmaMagna will cruise the Danube. The Dutch/Serbian builder also builds river cruise vessels for Scylla AG which has now expanded its fleet to at least 11 units and will take delivery of three new vessels in 2018/2019. The fleet now cruises under the banner of Riviera Travel. The new vessels will accommodate 176 passengers, in 169 berths and 132 berths respectively with delivery in April 2018 and the latter two in 2019.
A number of ambitious developments are happening in Russia but the pace is inevitably slow. Moscow River Shipping Company and Azerbaijan Caspian Shipping have signed an agreement to co-operate in cruise shipping for operation in the Caspian Sea region. The co-operation between the two is aimed at attracting tourists to Azerbaijan and Russia from the European Union, USA, Australia and China plus other regions. There will be joint developments linking with cruise ship sailings in the Black Sea, inland waterways in Russia and the Caspian Sea which include the ports of Baku, Moscow, Astrakhan, Anzali, Makhachkala, Nowshahr and Turkmenbashi. Such far flung places in a hidden part of the world will now open more to tourists. One of these ports – Lotos Shipyard situated in Astrakhan – is building Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) but it has been plagued by construction delays with the new date having slipped from February 2019 to late 2019. It will eventually commission on sailings between Astrakhan and Baku and later expand to its itinerary to other Russian cities. The vessel has capacity for 300 passengers. Lotos is currently negotiating a river cruise liner for Iranian ownership.
In a huge boost for European construction, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Dutch bank ING will contribute €300M (US$371M) in loans to clients who pursue green innovations. EIB already supports maritime construction and this new injection of cash will be eligible for inland vessels as well as sea going vessels if they meet EU policy objectives. The money will be phased in over the next three years. The partnership of ING and EIB will equally contribute €150M. This policy will undoubtedly provide more inland cruise vessels built and owned by European Union owners who have dedicated efforts to environmental issues and the chance for passengers to enjoy relaxation with their families in a greener future on the rivers of the world.