Sector: River cruise: Travel Weekly

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The theme for river cruising in 2019 is another year of growth and expanded options as operators scurry to tap demand from an increasingly diverse demographic, with new ships and more product varieties: traditional, themed, active and, increasingly, locally focused excursions.

From the Danube to the Mississippi to the Irrawaddy in Myanmar, the Nile in Egypt and the waterways of Vietnam and Cambodia, companies will continue launching ships, both newbuilds and top-to-bottom renovations. And the ships will raise the bar on quality, with bigger cabins, more suites, more dining choices and social venues, larger gyms and fitness programs and an increasing variety of excursions  both group and personalized  that focus on the local culture, food, wine and wellness.

Among the big news for 2019 in Europe will be the launch in May of the AmaMagna, which at 72 feet wide will be almost twice the width of AmaWaterways' existing river ships and the largest on Europe's waterways.
But AmaWaterways is being careful not to add too many more rooms, following a trend by companies to instead offer larger cabins and more amenities.

The 198-passenger AmaMagna will include a spa, a full-size gym and large fitness room for group classes, more dining options, a pop-up sky bar and a water-sports platform from which to launch kayaks and complimentary rides on a small touring boat.

The Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, meanwhile, continues to replace or overhaul its older ships, launching its sixth "super ship" in 2019 with the renovation of its River Royale.

In North America, where operators have said they are unable to build ships fast enough to meet demand, expect to see continued expansion from the American Queen Steamboat Co. and American Cruise Lines, which are competing intensely in the fast-growing domestic market.

The American Harmony being built at Chesapeake Shipbuilding.
The American Harmony being built at Chesapeake Shipbuilding.

American Cruise Lines in 2019 will launch the American Harmony, a sister ship to the recently debuted American Song and only the second modern European-style ship in the U.S. By the time the American Song made its inaugural sailing on the Mississippi in the fall, it was sold out through the end of the season. When the Harmony launches, the Song will move to the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

American Queen is currently building its fourth vessel, the American Countess, and it recently purchased Victory Cruise Lines, which sails small ships on the Great Lakes.

At the same time, operators in more remote Asian, Egyptian and Amazonian ports are focused on launching more small, private ships. For example, on the Nile, which is again one of the hottest markets, Heritage Tours is turning to small sailing ships with just four cabins that can be launched away from the crowded docks where traditional river ships are stacked next to each other.

Aqua Expeditions recently received capital to grow its fleet, and Minor Hotels has a new two-cabin cruiser for private journeys on the Mekong.

It's all part of an aggressive drive by companies to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

"I think there is definitely more competition, and each of us has to live up to our brand standards and what our guests are looking for," said Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways. "Every brand has to have its own personality. In river cruising, that was not the case five years ago. It really was about your fleet and what was different in your cabins. Over the last few years it has really been a different situation, where every brand is developing a personality."

Indeed, while AmaWaterways has been promoting itself as the leader in active cruising, adding a wellness coach and multiple fitness-class options on every ship in 2019, Avalon promotes its cabin design, with beds facing floor-to-ceiling windows. Crystal considers itself the leader in onboard cuisine, and Uniworld prides itself on its boutique design and butler service. Viking remains laser-focused on the over-55 crowd.

Still, the brands also closely watch each other to match the latest twists, which means a lot more options for travelers.

One thing everyone seems to be doing for 2019 is adding more, often shorter, itineraries with a wider variety of activities for guests of all ages and activity levels.

Viking is adding Local Life, Working World and Privileged Access experiences, which a Viking spokesperson said let "guests get out and explore nature from a local perspective."

For example, the spokesperson said, Viking will offer wetlands canoeing on the Elbe, Danube (near Vienna) and Moselle rivers and in Normandy on a tributary of the Seine. "We have also added bike and e-bike tours, like the Wachau Valley by Bicycle or biking through the working windmills of Kinderdijk [in the Netherlands]. In the Black Forest, guests will bike through vineyards and then visit a home for coffee and cake. In Budapest, we offer the guided Budapest Castle City hike and a hike in the Passau Hills."

Among many new itineraries, Crystal, Avalon and Uniworld are adding longer cruises on the Moselle that go beyond traditional ports of call.

At Tauck, officials said they remain bullish on family-focused River Cruises, introducing their fifth one for 2019, a Christmas cruise on the Danube.

Also new for next year is a Tauck river cruise on the Seine that reflects river cruising's growing popularity among younger travelers, said company spokesman Tom Armstrong.

"At just eight days, it's our shortest cruise on the Seine," he said. "It will appeal to those who are still active in the workplace, who therefore have less available vacation time."