The recent, startling popularity of river cruises is, to me, one of the great mysteries of travel. Just a few years ago, one could easily explain their attraction for elderly Americans. In ships plodding along at 4 miles an hour, everything aboard the vessel also slowed down. Passengers went to bed early (with no stage shows or casinos to tempt them), and the small number of cruisers led to easy friendships and quiet conversations.
Yet suddenly, there's been a major drop in the average age of passengers, and cruise line after cruise line is rushing to build new ships. Only last week, the luxurious Crystal Cruises--operator of elegant, ocean-going vessels--announced it was joining in the frenzied construction of new river boats. Scarcely a week goes by that new expansions of river fleets aren't announced, and one such line--the growing Viking Cruises--now operates more than 60 "longboats" (elongated river ships) and is rushing to build more.
The design of these new ships adds to the mystery of the river cruises' appeal. Nearly every river cruise line has announced that its new river ships will have heated swimming pools with swim-up bars, work-out gyms and other fitness facilities, balconies attached to cabins, and other touches similar to those found on large ocean going ships. But when are passengers supposed to use these facilities? Because nearly every day of a river cruise involves a stop in a city port, with virtually no days spend simply cruising the river (unlike many ocean cruises, with their periodic days spent simply at sea), it is apparently anticipated that passengers will frequently forego the opportunity to step ashore to sample the ports at which the ship stops, in favor of a day spent simply on the ship, enjoying swimming pools and fitness rooms. The element of foreign travel--the element of travel at all--is virtually eliminated.
And because many of the port stops of a river cruise are unimportant towns of little interest, at which few passengers disembark for a day of exploration on land, it appears that much of the appeal of these river cruises is in the lack of challenge they present to passengers. As unperturbed as an ocean cruise is, these river cruises--to my mind--involve even less activity on the part of passengers. On one of my own river cruises of the Mississippi aboard the American Queen, I recall so vividly seeing groups of women spending their entire day playing bridge, in an interior lobby of the ship. For them, the river cruise afforded no contact with the outside world.
Don't get me wrong: the river cruises offer many fine rewards. For one thing, the level of food aboard most river cruises is almost always superior to what one finds on ocean cruise ships. And I, for one, don't miss the second-rate shows presented in the big auditoriums of ocean cruise ships, that obviously aren't presented on river cruises, with their smaller capacities. After having dinner on a river cruise, most passengers listen to a single pianist or singer, and then go to sleep. Entertainment programs aren't big on the rivers.
And yet, for all their disadvantages, the river cruise is currently the hottest product in travel. As compared with the excitement of an ocean cruise on an interesting itinerary (as in the Mediterranean), the river cruises seem to pale in appeal.
Can anyone explain why they're selling as strongly as they are?