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Global demand for experiential travel is rapidly growing, and river cruise companies and the travel agents who sell them have taken notice.
In response to travelers’ appetite for authentic and immersive experiences, cruise lines are upping the ante when it comes to itinerary length and land excursions. The goal is to help guests explore an entire region on a single vacation so they can gain a deeper sense of local culture.
Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles, sees the creation of extended cruises as a strong solution to customer demand.
“In the past decade, we have seen a change in the objectives for travel, especially with clients who are 50-plus,” Kaplan said. “Most of them took ocean cruises in the ’80s and ’90s, but now it’s no longer about the midnight buffet or the Kodak moments — they want to immerse themselves in the destination and the culture of the people who live there.”
According to Kaplan, this trend is driving the popularity of combined land and cruise vacations, whether the packages are offered by cruise lines or custom-created by a travel agent.
Though it’s often assumed that vacation-starved Americans aren’t able to squeeze in a lengthy river trip, some travel agents are seeing positive changes in corporate vacation policies, especially for clients working in tech or at more innovative companies.
Beth Levich, owner of Cruise Holidays of Portland and All About River Cruises in Lake Oswego, Ore., has found this to be true with her local clients, including those employed by Nike or Intel. Some even get periodic five- to seven-week sabbaticals and consider longer cruises during this time.
Retirees continue to be key to the market as well. Levich believes both groups feel especially justified in taking a longer cruise when it takes place in a more distant location, such as Asia.
Demand is being matched with increased availability. For example, in 2016, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises will debut the 21-day Portraits of Eastern Europe itinerary, which departs from Prague and stops in Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade and more en route to Istanbul.
The 26-day Ultimate European Journey between Amsterdam and Istanbul will also be a new option next year. Uniworld already offers Ultimate France, a 22-day itinerary between Paris and Avignon — and there’s enough interest to have three ships set sail on each departure date in 2015.
American river cruise offerings are mirroring this growth pattern as well, thanks to client interest.
“The feedback we are getting from our guests indicates they want more time in the ports,” said Nancy Blount, president of Rhode Island-based Blount Small Ship Adventures. “We have lengthened a number of our itineraries in response. Our best-seller is the Great American Waterways itinerary, which now lasts 16 days and sails from Warren, R.I., to Chicago.”
Tom Baker, co-owner of Houston-based Cruise Center, is also seeing first-time and veteran river cruisers look to longer sailings. He notes that 14-day cruises between Amsterdam and Budapest — a standard offering from a number of cruise lines — are popular amongst clients, as are extended France cruises.
The longest river cruise he sold recently was the 21-day Amsterdam to Bucharest itinerary from AmaWaterways. He also praises American Cruise Lines’ new 22-night Complete Mississippi River Cruise, which travels through 10 states en route from New Orleans to St. Paul, Minn.
And it’s not just Americans interested in such a journey.
“Aussies are trailblazing the average duration of travel,” Baker said. “Coming from that far away, a three-week trip is normal.”
Given this observation, it’s no surprise that Australian-owned Scenic Cruises offers an array of extensive itineraries, such as the 30-day Gallipoli and Black Sea Explorer River Cruise to Amsterdam via Istanbul and the 23-day Gems of the Seine & South of France River Cruise, which travels from Paris to Nice.
Tauck and Avalon Waterways are also players in the market. Both offer 24-day sailings from Amsterdam to Bucharest.
This year, Tauck is also offering the multifaceted 23-day Belle Epoch: London to Monte Carlo cruise. The epic vacation begins with a two-night stay at The Savoy in London, followed by a nine-night cruise on the Seine, a high-speed rail journey to Lyon and a nine-night cruise on the Rhone. The trip wraps up with a two-night stay in Monte Carlo.
In China, Viking River Cruises is also addressing demand with longer options. On the 18-day China’s Cultural Delights trip, passengers spend extended days in Beijing, Xian and Shanghai and cruise the Yangtze River for 11 days. Experiential highlights on this portion of the itinerary include an elementary school visit in Jingzhou and a tour of Snow Jade Cave near Fengdu.
Given the number of longer river cruises currently available and the exciting options set for next year, Kaplan of Premier River Cruises says the next step is spreading the word.
“Agents need to talk about longer cruises and about combined land and cruise vacations,” Kaplan said. “It’s justification for our role. Travelers can’t just go on the Internet and put a full, in-depth exploration together. Tell them, ‘If you are going this far, why not see as much as you possibly can?’”
Blount Small Ship Adventureswww.blountsmallshipadventures.com
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collectionwww.uniworld.com
Viking River Cruiseswww.vikingrivercruises.com