The big ocean liner is, without doubt, the defining image of the cruise industry; the sonorous horn, the glitzy entertainment, the huge queue of guests spilling out into coastal cities. Everything is large in every possible sense.

But there’s another side to the cruise sector that gets far less attention than it deserves.

Away from the glamour of the oceans and large liners, the river-cruise market – with its smaller ships and more intimate itinerates – is booming.

Recent figures from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) suggest the river cruise segment is now the fastest-growing category in the entire industry, with 10% annual passenger growth over the last five years.

This might have seemed impossible 25 years ago, when the infrastructure necessary for river cruising was only just being built. The introduction of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal system in 1992 was a key moment in this history – an interlocking network that spanned the face of Europe from the North Sea to the Black Sea. But it was Rudi Schreiner, now president of AmaWaterways, that first noticed the canal’s potential as a place for cruising.

"I was reading an article about the Rhine-Main-Danube canal system that had opened for freight shipping," Schreiner says. "I realised its potential for cruising, and that’s how it started. From then on it really started growing."

Two decades later and the river cruise industry has gone truly global. Western Europe remains the most popular destination with its key rivers – the Rhine, Main and Danube – all linked together by a continuous canal system. But other markets are doing well. New itineraries have popped up in Africa, Cambodia, Russia, the US and Vietnam.

"The potential is huge because, as a travel product, river cruising is unique. Passengers can get double the leisure time. You don’t have to get up in the morning to pack and move to the next hotel."

"Looking at new destinations such as Asia, particularly the rivers in Cambodia and Vietnam, and Southern Europe, these rivers are still growing, and there is still potential there," says Helge Grammerstorf, managing director of IG RiverCruise. "The river cruise lines are looking for new destinations and areas to cruise. If you look at Western Europe, you have a number of rivers that are well connected to one another. You really can cross the continent."

Expanding fleets

Viking River Cruises has been at the heart of this recent growth, with ten new ships launched in 2013 and 14 more Longships expected this year. It’s all part of a $250-million fleet development programme that includes a number of key refurbishments as well as the new builds.

"The industry is doing quite well at the moment, especially the US market," says Torstein Hagen, Viking River Cruises CEO. "We’ve been around a long time, and it seems as though the value of river cruising is finally getting through to people. It’s a very different business model to ocean cruising and a very different experience.

"These new ships represent a quantum leap forward in hardware. The real game-changer is that we’ve managed to fit proper cabins with balconies. In the past, corridors on river ships have traditionally been centred. Here, they are asymmetric, which means the creation of additional space; balconies on one side of the ship and suites on the other."

Viking started building river ships much earlier than its competitors, but other cruise operators are starting to catch up. Avalon has announced three new ships for 2014, AmaWaterways will add two to its fleet and Tauck is set to launch two new builds in Europe this year – Inspire and Savor.

"These companies are building lots of ships and filling them as well," says Grammerstorf. "Sometimes, they fill the ships before they’ve even built them. The river cruise industry cannot grow by using huge vessels with a large number of passengers. They can only increase their business by building more units. That’s why so many new builds are coming through."

This kind of fleet expansion is unlikely to stop any time soon. Although investment in new piers will be needed if the current rate of growth continues, Europe’s rivers still have plenty of room to absorb extra capacity. Even the Rhine – a busy river by most metrics – could double its traffic without any real difficulty.

"The potential is huge," Schreiner says. "That’s because, as a travel product, river cruising is unique.

"In the past, river cruising was seen as a few nights spent on a bunk bed on the Rhine. But that perception has changed – the focus has been on providing intimacy, luxury and fine dining."

What makes it different to a motor-coach tour, a train or a car is that passengers can get double the leisure time. You don’t have to get up in the morning to pack and move to the next hotel; you don’t have sit through rush-hour traffic; and you don’t even have
to get up in the morning at all if you don’t want to."

Providing the intimate option

Perhaps this points to a wider shift in the interest of cruise passengers – a desire for smaller-scale travel and for experiencing cities and towns that aren’t accessible to large ocean lines.

The current river cruise market for Europe is 500,000 passengers, way short of the 15 million still sticking to the traditional ocean cruises. But, as consumer preferences change, who knows how far that balance will shift.

Of course, operators aren’t restricting their attention to freshwater. Viking in particular is looking to translate the intimate approach of river cruising onto the high seas.

"I look at the ocean cruising market and it seems as though the ships themselves have become the destination," says Hagen. "We now have a large customer base in place, many of whom would like to go to other interesting locations, but perhaps not aboard a megaship.

"These vessels are remarkable feats of engineering and serve their purpose in an excellent way, but there are a lot of people out there who feel more comfortable with something rather smaller. I think that’s an experience we can provide."

"The key is the destination, not the ship," Schreiner adds. "On our tours, you spend almost all day in the town; only on the very scenic stretches are you on the ship cruising. We had ocean cruising before motor-coach travel.

"I think river cruising is somewhere in between. You still have the convenience of one check in and one check out. But, on the other hand the focus is on the local destination – it’s about really experiencing the place."

The industry’s best operators are now more than capable of competing with the top ocean cruise lines for quality of service and accommodation.

In the past, river cruising was seen as a few nights spent on a bunk bed on the Rhine. But that perception has changed – with locks and bridges limiting how experimental new ships can be, the focus has been on providing luxurious accommodation and fine dining.

"People looking for lots of entertainment, restaurants, bars and wellness centres will have to go on one of the big ocean cruisers, but accommodation on river cruise lines is now very comfortable. The ships are much smaller – you can even have a French balcony," says Grammerstorf.

This isn’t an either/or position, a fight between ocean vessels and river cruisers. Even with growth as impressive as it is, large swathes of consumers in mature and emerging markets remain untouched and uncruised. The potential for growth across the entire industry is impressive.

But, where megaships once dominated the minds of consumers, the river cruise industry is certainly gaining ground. Perhaps the only bottleneck that remains is the destination. More investment in new piers will be needed if the growth in new ships continues. And all signs suggest it will.