The popularity of river cruising is exploding. It seems like every time we turn around, there is either a new announcement of another company entering into the river cruise industry, or an announcement of an existing river cruise company’s fleet expansion.
This year alone, Disney Cruise Line announced its partnership with AMAWaterways to offer family-friendly river cruises, Crystal Cruises announced their foray into river cruising, Celebrity Cruises started to blend ocean and river cruises together, and it seems like new river cruises keep popping up every few months. Add to that the ever expanding fleets of existing river cruise companies, and one wonders how long before the European rivers will be overflowing with ships. Add in the occasional effect of Mother Nature, with water levels being too high (or too low) which affects the ability of ships to move along the rivers, and traffic chaos could be in the future.
Some of these announcements, like Disney and Celebrity, won’t necessarily lead to new ships as they are both partnering with existing river cruise lines. However, Disney once partnered with an existing cruise company (anyone remember The Big Red Boat). Once they determined that cruising was a viable family-friendly form of entertainment, it didn’t take them long to severe that partnership and launch their own custom built ships and their own cruise line. If river cruising is a big hit with families, don’t be surprised if Disney eventually ventures into the river cruise business with their own line of ships.
However, Crystal’s entrance into river cruising and the continuing expansion of the river cruise line fleets begs the question of how many ships will be too many, and how soon. Rivers have a finite amount of space. It is not like oceans where ships can spread out and have a plethora of ports of call from which to choose. It’s bad enough when you have upwards of a dozen ships (and over 20,000 passengers) descend on St. Thomas on the same day. River cruise ports simply aren’t equipped to hold a large number of ships, and many of the smaller ports could not handle an influx of an overwhelming number of passengers at once.
One of the draws to river cruising is that it is small and intimate and not “mass market”, and it is amazingly popular right now as a result. Because of that popularity, river cruise companies can practically print their own money. However, they can’t build bigger ships: locks and rivers dictate the maximum size that ships can be. So without the ability to build larger ships, all they can do is churn out new ships as fast as possible. But as they build new ships, and potentially overpower river cruise ports, they take a serious risk of eliminating the allure of river cruising, its intimacy and “close up” appeal. The charm of being on the only ship in port (with maybe 150 other passengers) could become a memory of years past.
With so many cruise lines and so many ships vying for passengers, they could fall into the “mass market” trap. Then as river cruising starts to lose its appeal, filling so many ships and berths could threaten the river cruising industry with the stigma of being a mere travel commodity, driving down prices.
How many ships will be too many? Can the river cruise companies and ports along the rivers identify that number before it’s too late?
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel (www.shipsntripstravel.com) located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations (www.kickbuttvacations.com), she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (888) 221-1209.