AMSTERDAM — Just how big is the boom in river cruising? So big that the head of North America’s largest river line is openly talking about having 100 ships on the world’s rivers by the end of the decade.
“We shouldn’t disregard the possibility,” says Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking River Cruises, which currently operates 35 vessels from Europe to Southeast Asia.
Speaking with cruise writers this week during inaugural festivities for his line’s newest ships, Hagen said he saw no end in sight to the soaring demand for river cruises that has characterized the past decade.
The number of North Americans taking a river cruise has grown at a 14% annual rate since 2001, more than twice as fast as the 6% annual growth in the number of North Americans taking ocean cruises, Hagen says.
“At some stage we will have to slow down, but we really don’t see any need for a slowdown yet,” he notes.
On Wednesday, Viking made cruising history with the naming of 10 new ships at once, and the company has 12 more vessels on order for 2014.
Still, despite boosting capacity by 40% this year, Viking barely has any space available to sell, Hagen says.
“If you go on our website and try to make a booking (for) Europe this year, you’ll find that, through the end of October, out of 50,000 cabins that we had for sale, we only have 600 left,” he says. “It’s jam-packed full.”
Hagen says the river cruise boom is being driven in part by the aging of the Baby Boom generation, which is beginning to retire and places a high value on traveling the world. The typical Viking customer is age 55 or older.
“It’s about people who have earned some money and haven’t had time to see these things on Earth,” he says.
River lines also are drawing customers away from ocean cruise lines that Hagen suggests have lost their way.
“We feel that many of the ocean cruise lines have totally forgotten about the destination,” Hagen said Wednesday at a reception following the naming ceremony for Viking’s new ships. “When I was young and ran (an ocean) cruise line, we said it was the destination that matters. Through river cruising we have brought the destination back into cruising.”
Hagen ran the upmarket Royal Viking Line in the 1980s.
In addition to river ships, Viking is developing ocean ships of its own that will begin debuting in 2015. The company has two vessels on order that will carry about 928 passengers a piece and could add four more ships in subsequent years, Hagen says.
As with Viking’s river ships, the focus of its ocean ships will be “much more on the destinations than all of the stuff that people can buy on board … or be sold on board,” Hagen says.