The river cruise market is a broad church, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it. Of the 140,000 Britons who took river cruises in 2014, 86 per cent of them headed to Europe, according to Clia. The majority of those stuck to the new duopoly of the Rhine and Danube, the latter of which saw its popularity rise by 41 per cent, putting it firmly in second place.
But, beyond the headline acts, the statistics reveal a complicated landscape, particularly given the continued decline of the Nile, once the favoured river of the British traveller. The Egyptian waterway has left a huge gap in the market, while an increasingly adventurous clientele are convincing cruise lines to look further afield. There’s a reason Clia’s figures show the Mekong, in Southeast Asia, up 55 per cent, and total non-European cruises up to 19,000, a 12 per cent rise.
In Europe, cruise lines continue to add capacity to the mainstays — the Rhine, Main and Moselle, and Danube — but it is a continent that offers considerable choice. The Rhone-Saone and Seine in France have seen steady growth, while Portugal’s Douro — no longer the secret it once was — could be the next big river market, with a hatful of lines now sailing there, and more heading soon.
As ever with cruise, it pays to think outside the box. Not all rivers are navigable, but it’s always worth checking, remember that river cruise lines have a presence across the continent. For example, 2,900 people cruised the Italian Po in 2014; 2,800 the Elbe through Germany and the Czech Republic; and a further 13,400 passengers took cruises on ‘other’ European rivers.
Combination cruises, where a passenger is able to sample more than one river in just one cruise, have been a staple of river cruise line programmes for decades. However, with the so-called renaissance of river cruising well underway, it is only a matter of time before the idea begins to take off with British passengers too.
Among these others is the Guadalquivir, which snakes through sun-kissed southern Spain, and by the grand cities and rolling green hills. You can point customers towards CroisiEurope, which operates its 176-passenger La Belle de Cadix through Seville, Cadiz, Granada and stunning Córdoba, once capital of the Islamic Emirate ruled by the Muslim Umayyad dynasty. In fact, the operator is a specialist in offering itineraries on rivers many others don’t sail to, notably running itineraries on France’s shallow-water Loire between Saint-Nazaire and Angers.
The Russian waterways remain quietly popular, rarely generating the column inches they deserve, considering the Volga, the longest waterway in Europe, connects the magnificent cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. For customers looking east, Viking River Cruises’ Waterways of the Tsars is a great option, sailing between the two cities over 13 days, taking in Kuzino, Yaroslavl and Uglich on the way. Through eWaterways customers can also experience the two cities on eight-day trips, which also call at the remarkable Kizhi Island.
Even the much-traversed Danube offers unusual delights. Emerald Waterways’ Enchantment of Eastern Europe cruise begins in Budapest and sails through Belgrade, taking in the Iron Gates, the narrow gorge between the European Alps and Carpathian Mountains, and onto Bucharest. Avalon Waterways’ 14-night Blue Danube to The Black Sea also offers sailings east from Vienna to the Romania capital.
While the Nile has fallen below 10,000 UK cruise passengers for the first time, a by-product of the turbulent political situation the country faces, there are still operators sailing there. Uniworld, for example, offers a fantastic 12-night return trip from Cairo (Splendours of Egypt & the Nile), with excursions that, of course, include the Pyramids of Giza and Valley of the Kings. Further south, AmaWaterways offers cruises on its Zambezi Queen, which was specifically designed for safari river cruises on the Chobe river. The line’s brilliant Rivers & Rails of Africa cruises begins with three nights in Cape Town, followed by a four-night safari cruise, two nights in Victoria Falls, and then a three-night Rovos Rail train journey to Pretoria.
Elsewhere is the Irrawaddy, in Myanmar (formerly Burma), which is fast becoming one of Asia’s top rivers, after travel restrictions to the country were relaxed. Several operators now sail there, notably Pandaw River Expeditions, which has eight ships on the Irrawaddy, as well as one on the Chindwin tributary (and Andaman Explorer coastal ship). Another great option is AmaWaterways’ Hidden Wonders of Myanmar, which begins with a night in Yangon. Customers then fly to Mandalay and embark upon a 14-night cruise that ends in Yangon.