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One sure sign that river cruising is a hot commodity is the presence of added players in the field. The former CEO of Silversea Cruises, Albert Peter, has launched a new venture called Jewel River Cruises. Positioning itself as a boutique-luxury river cruise line, the company debuts in France mid-May, with the maiden voyage of the ms Jewel Imperial Blue. The vessel will carry 80 guests in three different categories of all-suite accommodations. Onboard features will include a spa, cigar bar and an alternative dining venue. Following its 10-day maiden voyage from Paris to Rouen along the Seine, Jewel Imperial Blue will offer 7- and 10-day sailings along the route through November.
Also gearing up to debut new product on European rivers is Australian-based Scenic Tours. The company will launch two newbuilds this June, ms Scenic Sapphire and ms Scenic Emerald. Dubbed “space ships,” the 169-passenger vessels will boast two decks of balcony suites. Both Scenic Sapphire and Scenic Emerald will sail 14-night cruises between Amsterdam and Budapest on the Rhine and Danube rivers from June to November. Two additional vessels, ms Scenic Diamond and ms Scenic Ruby, will join the fleet in 2009.
In addition to new companies entering the waters, established river cruise lines are busy expanding their fleets. Amadeus Waterways plans to launch two new vessels in Europe this year, the MS Amacello and the MS Amadante. Two additional vessels are on order for 2009 delivery.
“We’re seeing huge demand. We’re keeping the shipyards full by building two ships every year,” said Amadeus Waterways president Rudi Schreiner.
A river cruise industry veteran, Schreiner has set his expansion sights on new and diverse worldwide itineraries. The line recently launched a unique Portugal and Spain program that features the scenic Douro River Valley. And a new Mosel and Rhine itinerary includes a stay in Paris before cruising between Trier, Germany and Amsterdam. With amenities such as free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, French balconies, elevators, fitness facilities, beauty salon and bicycles for exploring, “product quality is key,” said Amadeus vice president Kristin Karst.
Other lines introducing new vessels this year in Europe include Avalon Waterways and Tauck World Discovery. Avalon will introduce the Avalon Scenery in France this April. The line, part of the Globus Family of Brands, will feature new gastronomy-themed itineraries in Burgundy and Provence.
“Based on our forward-bookings, it seems that travel agents have rediscovered the South of France. Perhaps, in part, because of the awe-inspiring sightseeing, foodie delights and the famous wines of Burgundy and Provence that are available to travelers. A river cruise through the South of France should be on everyone’s wish list. And, there is still space on popular departures, but travel agents need to move quickly to ensure their clients get onboard with us,” said Avalon’s managing director, Patrick Clark.
“Bookings are very strong for 2008 and we’re substantially ahead of 2007. That speaks to the overall popularity of river cruising. Though we have more competition with new players entering the market, the demand is exceeding supply right now,” said Mike Wiersema, Viking’s vice president of sales.
At Uniworld Grand River Cruises, there’s a continued focus on adding luxury amenities, as well as complimentary wine during dinner, to the line’s European fleet. As for itineraries, Uniworld is seeing “a lot of interest in Turkey,” said the line’s vice president of marketing, Maria Grimardi.
“A new Ukraine, Black Sea and Istanbul itinerary is selling quite well. We are also seeing a tremendous demand for all of our European programs,” said Grimardi. Uniworld is also planning to introduce an online booking engine for travel agents in the near future.
For those clients with specific interests such as golfing, gardening or hiking, the venerable German line, Peter Deilmann Cruises, might be a good match. This year, Deilmann is offering 36 themed river cruises in Europe, departing from April through October.
Europe may be the world’s river-cruise hub, but the product continues to evolve in a number of other destinations as well. Foremost among them is China, where Victoria Cruises is refurbishing the Victoria Empress for its Yangtze River itineraries. After the multi-million-dollar enhancements, the Victoria Empress will resume sailing in March. The line’s fleet will grow to eight vessels in April 2009, with the introduction of the new Victoria Jenna the largest vessel to ply the Yangtze.
In Egypt, the international luxury brand Oberoi debuted the Oberoi Zahra in October 2007. The all-suite vessel offers such amenities as a full-service spa and private docking facilities along the Nile.
Come 2009, your clients will also have another new option on the Nile. Uniworld plans to launch a newbuild there, a move reflecting that Egypt is “hugely popular right now,” said Grimardi.
In India, Oberoi’s motor vessel Vrinda offers a three-night, four-day cruise through the picturesque, lush rivers and backwaters of Kerala. Highlights include personalized regional cuisine by the vessel’s executive chef.
Upscale river cruising is thriving in other far-flung locales as well. Take, for example, the ancient land of Burma, now known as Myanmar. The Road to Mandalay, part of the Orient-Express collection, offers a voyage to the enchanting sites along the Ayeyarwady river.
For your more adventuresome clients, consider Pandaw River Cruises in Southeast Asia. The line’s four ships ply the Irrawaddy and Chindwin in Burma, the Mekong and Tonle rivers in Cambodia, as well as the backwaters of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
Don’t forget that domestic rivers offer your clients plenty of options as well. Majestic America Line’s Empress of the North, Queen of the West and Columbia Queen sail the Columbia and Snake rivers of the Pacific Northwest. The line is also offering 67 sailings on the Upper Mississippi, Lower Mississippi, Ohio and Cumberland rivers, ranging from three-night excursions to 14-night getaways. This year also brings a series of farewell cruises for the historic Delta Queen.
Though not a traditional river cruise line, American Safari Cruises offers river cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers from September through early November. The itineraries sail between Lewiston, Idaho, and Astoria, Ore., on the 12-passenger Safari Spirit.
Cruise West also offers a few river cruises in its lineup. In the spring and fall, it ventures on to the Columbia and Snake rivers on seven-night roundtrip voyages from Portland on the Spirit of ’98 and Spirit of Discovery. A new itinerary called “Taste of the Pacific Northwest,” aboard Spirit of Discovery will focus on wines and artisinal foods of Washington and Oregon. In addition, a series of fall wine-country cruises in California commence on San Francisco Bay before heading up the Napa River.
For a distinctive East Coast experience, American Cruise Lines offers voyages on the Hudson river departing roundtrip from New York City. The line also offers an itinerary called “Great Rivers of Florida.”
For those not even aware that there were rivers in Florida, perhaps it’s time for a wake-up call. Although the choices for river cruising have increased, so has demand. Many lines report that the majority of their staterooms are already sold for 2008. Agents who fail to strike while the iron is hot are no doubt missing out on a river of opportunity.
American Cruise Lines800-814-6880www.americancruiselines.com
American Safari Cruises888-862-8881www.amsafari.com
Jewel River Cruise Line866-342-7607www.jewelrivercruises.com
Majestic America Line800-434-1232www.majesticamericaline.com
Pandaw River Cruises800-798-4223www.pandaw.com
Peter Deilmann Cruises800-348-8287www.deilmann-cruises.com
RiverBarge Excursion Lines888-462-2743www.riverbarge.com
Tauck World Discovery800-468-2825www.tauck.com
Uniworld Grand River Cruises800-733-7820www.uniworld.com
Victoria Cruises China800-348-8084www.victoriacruises.com
Viking River Cruises877-668-4546www.vikingrivercruises.com