But after a successful 2022 season, stakeholders in the European river cruise industry are taking a close look at what the future holds, and there is plenty of optimism, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.
In the UK, we often think of river cruising as the modern day 'Grand Tour' equivalent, enabling North Americans and Australians to tick off the key capitals of Europe. With inflated flight prices and general unease about safety, they have not flocked back quite as expected. Nevertheless, in view of the high cost of the best European hotels at the moment, river cruising comes out as spectacularly good value.
Alongside challenges in the supply chain, from the perspectives of both sourcing and cost, river cruise lines have also faced inflation, deteriorating economies, crew shortages, water levels, and the whole question of sustainability, and yet they remain resilient in a buoyant market.
It is some ten years since we saw phenomenal growth in European river cruising, with high numbers of new ships being built every year and a seemingly endless demand which enabled river cruise lines to keep prices high whilst filling their ships. Nowadays the orders have dwindled, and there are serious question marks over the future of cruising on certain rivers, especially the shallow Loire and Elbe, and the Po.
Having said that, operators point to the other French rivers as ready for further growth, and there is also a search for new opportunities to match the success of the Douro. CroisiEurope, for example, are opening up the Guadiana and the Guadalquivir.
Hybrid propulsion is becoming more of a reality, and there are expectations that work on new options moving forward, just as we see in the oceangoing cruise industry. However, the technology for electric river vessels still seems far off. Of course, overtourism is the other aspect of sustainability, and it is not unusual to see river boats docked three or four deep in the major towns.
Unsurprisingly, destination is the key motivator for clients selecting a river cruise, offering as it does an ideal solution to explore an area in depth with all the attendant advantages: unpack only once, enjoy a slow pace of life, eat each evening what you have seen in the fields during the day, dock in the centre of towns and villages to walk ashore and explore independently, and above all, understand in advance exactly what the cost of your trip will be.
At Mundy Cruising, our extensive experience of the river cruise market stretches way back to the 70s, when the Rhine was the be all and end all: the epitome of river cruising with fairy-tale castles, sun-dappled vineyards on precarious terraces, enchanting old cities and a medieval vibe along the way. Returning visitors might plan to explore the lowlands in greater depth, including Belgium and Luxembourg, especially at tulip time.
The Danube follows as a close second, featuring iconic calls such as Vienna, Bratislava, the Wachau Valley and Budapest. Aficionados then turn to France: the Seine, the Rhône & Saône, and the numerous rivers around Bordeaux, for history, wine and excellent food. Then seek further afield, for the Douro, the Po, the lower Danube, and maybe even the Elbe.