• In 2020, the European river cruise season was marked by the Covid pandemic, affecting to a great extent the river cruise industry, not only on the demand side but also on the fleet and supply side.
• Despite the crisis, the number of river cruise vessels in Europe reached 397, with 19 new vessels commissioned (the same number of new vessels as in 2019). A downward trend is however expected in the rate of new buildings in the coming years, thereby also affecting shipyards.
• As a direct consequence of the pandemic, the number of cruise vessel voyages decreased by 91% on the Danube, 82% on the Rhine and 70% on the Mosel in 2020.
• Similarly, the number of passengers on day-trip vessels in Europe decreased substantially. In Strasbourg a 79% reduction was observed in 2020.

 

FLEET FOR RIVER CRUISES28

 

  • The river cruise season for 2020 was marked by the Covid pandemic, affecting to a great extent the river cruise industry, not only on the demand side but on the fleet or supply side as well. Indeed, many vessels have been “on hold” for an entire year, the oldest and less efficient vessels have even been sold by some operators. However, in the hope of a better season in 2021, newbuilding orders did not sustain many cancellations in 2020. A downward trend is expected in the rate of new buildings for river cruise vessels in the next years, thereby affecting shipyards.
  • In 2020, the EU region river cruise fleet remained the largest,29 followed by the Nile and other African rivers. The European fleet has increased continuously since 2005. In nearly two decades, it grew by 150%, with the highest growth recorded between 2013 and 2015 (when Viking River Cruises heavily invested in new river cruise vessels). Today, both American and European passengers drive the growth of the European fleet, while the number of Chinese guests also grew fast before Covid.
  • Taking into consideration the number of vessels, the active river cruise fleet in Europe represents more than 40% of the world active river cruise fleet.30 The fleet for river cruises in the EU region is mainly concentrated on central European waterways31 which have a share of close to 75% of the total river cruise fleet in the EU, based on the number of vessels.
  • In 2020, the number of river cruise vessels in Europe reached 397, totaling 57,940 beds (compared to 378 active vessels in 2019 with 54,814 beds).

 

FIGURE 1: NUMBER OF RIVER CRUISE VESSELS IN THE EU BY REGION OF OPERATION (2004-2021)*

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Source: Hader, A. (March 2021), The River Cruise Fleet
* 2021: based on order book as of March 2021

 

  • In the 2020 season, 19 new vessels were commissioned, as was the case in 2019. One older vessel (built in 1955) was withdrawn from the market as it was now out of service. Of these 19 new vessels, 12 joined the fleet operating on central European waterways, one joined the Danube, two joined the Douro and four joined the Seine. Seven of these new vessels are dedicated to the German speaking river cruising market, a greater number compared to the last years.
  • All the vessels planned for 2020 were ready, or in a late phase of building, when the Covid pandemic struck in March 2020. Some were commissioned on time, others with some delay. In the same period, several vessels had already been on order for delivery in 2021. It is difficult to provide a definite number of cancellations in 2021. However, it is observed that some delivery dates were postponed and that the number of new building contracts signed since 2020 is extremely small.
  • The 11 new buildings which will be joining the market in 2021 are expected to operate in the following regions: eight on central European waterways, two on the Danube, and one on the Rhône. In 2021, one more vessel will join the market after a long conversion phase and two vessels will be removed from the market as they went out of service.
  • The downward trend in new building orders is expected to continue in 2022 as only one new order, and one or two postponements, are currently recorded in order books. This is directly linked to the Covid pandemic. It is also very unlikely that any overseas travel operator will order new capacities in the near future. Indeed, while most companies survived the first Covid season, the year 2021 is likely to be decisive for many operators. The order book of most river cruise vessels builders is also empty as regards the near future.

 

FIGURE 2: NEW RIVER CRUISE VESSELS FOR THE EUROPEAN MARKET 2004-2022* (NUMBER OF CRUISE VESSELS)

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Source: Hader, A. (March 2021), The River Cruise Fleet
* 2021 and 2022: based on order books as of March 2021

 

  • The 19 new vessels which joined the market in 2020 brought an additional capacity of 3,155 beds (compared to 3,131 beds in 2019) to the river cruise market in Europe. The net capacity increase was 5.6%. In 2021, the extra capacity is expected to reach nearly 2,000 beds for 11 new vessels joining the market.
  • The average number of beds in 2020 in new river cruise vessels was 166, a number which is rising, after a decrease between 2014 and 2018. Indeed, seven large cruise vessels with a high passenger capacity (190 beds) came on the market in 2019, as well as three in 2020. Four such high passenger capacity cruise vessels are expected to operate in 2021.

 

FIGURE 3: NEW CRUISE CAPACITIES IN 2019, 2020 AND 2021 PER REGION OF OPERATION (NUMBER OF BEDS)*

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Source: Hader, A. (March 2021), The River Cruise Fleet
* R-M-D= Rhine/Main/Main-Danube Canal/Danube. In 2019, 150 new beds on the Rhine are also the result of conversion of an existing vessel. 2021: based on order books as of March 2021.

 

FIGURE 4: NUMBER OF RIVER CRUISE VESSELS IN THE EU BY YEAR OF CONSTRUCTION

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Source: Hader, A. (March 2021), The River Cruise Fleet
 

DEMAND FOR RIVER CRUISES

 

  • In 2020, 124,800 passengers enjoyed a river cruise voyage on European inland waterways. This figure represents a decrease of 93% compared to the 1.79 million passengers in 2019. Due to the strict travel restrictions, the once dominant share of US-American passengers (36.7% of 1.79 million in 2019) was crushed in 2020, and represented only 0.11% of the above-mentioned 124,800 passengers. The nationality with the highest share in 2020 were Germans, who represented 78% of all cruise passengers in 2020. Other nationalities were Swiss (6.4%) and Austrians (5.9%).
  • The yearly transit figures of river cruise vessels on the Rhine, Danube and Moselle show a tremendous decrease for 2020. Figures 5, 6 and 7 illustrate this somewhat disintegrating development at three locks: Iffezheim on the Upper Rhine, Jochenstein on the Upper Danube (German-Austrian border) and Koblenz on the Moselle. The decrease amounts to -69.5% for the Moselle at the lock of Koblenz and to -81.8% for the Rhine at the lock of Iffezheim, compared to 2019. The backdrop for the Danube in 2020 adds up to -91% compared to the previous year.

 

FIGURES 5, 6 AND 7: YEARLY NUMBER OF CRUISE SHIP TRANSITS ON DANUBE, RHINE AND MOSELLE

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Sources: German Waterway and Shipping Administration and Moselle Commission
* Rhine = Upper Rhine (lock of Iffezheim)
Danube = Upper Danube at the Austrian-German border (lock of Jochenstein)
Moselle = lock of Koblenz

 

  • In the pre-pandemic era, cruise ship traffic followed a positive trend on all three rivers. But, due to strict lockdown measures imposed in early 2020, economic activity came to an almost complete standstill with only a minor resumption of activity occurring in the second half of the year 2020, during the lifting of lockdown measures.
  • The following tables show figures for vessel traffic and passenger numbers at the German-Austrian, Slovakian-Hungarian, and Hungarian-Croatian-Serbian borders.
  • The majority of Danube cruises are made up of short trips that last 5, 7 or 8 days on the routes Passau-Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest-Passau and Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest, as well as trips to and from Rhine and Main ports. The figures for Danube cruising are therefore highest between Vienna and Budapest. These traffic figures are acquired from the measurements at the Slovakian-Hungarian border (Gabčíkovo), which lies between these two cities.
  • Cruise vessel traffic from Passau to the Danube Delta, with a duration of 14, 15 or 16 days, are in general less frequent than the shorter trips between Passau or Vienna and Budapest. The numbers for these two-week-trips are obtained by the border point of Mohács in southern Hungary.

 

TABLE 1: CRUISE VESSEL TRAFFIC ON THE GERMAN-AUSTRIAN BORDER (LOCK OF JOCHENSTEIN) AND NUMBER OF PASSENGERS

YearNumber of vessel transitsNumber of passengers
20153,456473,800
20163,134430,000
20173,204414,153
20183,625507,665
20193,668512,500
202032425,160

Sources: German Waterway and Shipping Administration and Danube Commission
 

TABLE 2: CRUISE VESSEL TRAFFIC ON THE SLOVAKIAN-HUNGARIAN BORDER (LOCK OF GABČÍKOVO) AND NUMBER OF PASSENGERS

YearNumber of vessel transitsNumber of passengers
20153,702534,000
20163,946564,700
20174,210595,500
20183,945548,800
20195,141720,800
202055756,100

Source: Danube Commission
 

TABLE 3: CRUISE VESSEL TRAFFIC ON THE HUNGARIAN-CROATIAN-SERBIAN BORDER (MOHÁCS) AND NUMBER OF PASSENGERS

YearNumber of vessel transitsNumber of passengers
201566783,000
201669386,900
201770797,700
2018754103,600
20191,017135,040
2020585,141

Source: Danube Commission
 
Outlook for river cruises

  • Due to continuous travel restrictions, passengers from overseas regions are still expected not to travel to the EU in 2021 and operators have therefore adapted their offers, to propose more national routes for European guests. Many vessels that carry overseas tourists in normal times are also expected to remain laid-up in 2021.
  • The forecasts assume a possible resumption of operations in 2022. The operation of cruise shipping on European rivers will depend primarily on the pandemic situation. There are three possible scenarios for this:32
    1) complete lifting of quarantine in all countries;
    2) easing or maintaining quarantine measures only in some countries;
    3) maintaining restrictions on passenger transport.
  • In the first scenario, cruises would take place and their number would be determined mainly by customer demand. Given the partial decline in income and the health and safety concerns of the clients (especially among the important client markets such as US-Americans), it is unlikely that demand would be high. The total number of tourists carried will also decrease significantly due to the implementation of health regulations on ships and possible restrictions on shore excursions. Scenarios 2 and 3 would make long distance trips quite difficult, if not impossible.
  • The pandemic has also affected other regions in the world. In the USA, it can be observed that operators are also adapting their river cruises to attract more national guests. In Southeast Asia, river operations also suffered from a lack of overseas tourists, with the exception of the Yangtze River, since life is more or less “back to normal” in China. The pause in fleet expansion due to the pandemic seems to also be over in China and several new ships are on order.

 

CASE STUDY ABOUT DAY TRIP VESSEL TRAFFIC IN STRASBOURG

 

  • As a case study for this market segment, the day-trip vessels in Strasbourg (BATORAMA) are chosen. Monthly passenger numbers were taken from the database of the port of Strasbourg.

 

FIGURE 8: NUMBER OF PASSENGERS ON DAY-TRIP VESSELS IN STRASBOURG (BATORAMA)

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Sources: Data from the Port Autonome de Strasbourg, CCNR analysis
 

  • The number of passengers increases as the summer season progresses and for the period considered reaches a peak in August, falling again in autumn. The downward movement regularly halts in December each year, due to the Christmas holidays, when tourists visit Strasbourg’s Christmas market. The curve then reaches its absolute yearly minimum in January.
  • Between 2016 and 2019, strong seasonality is observed, and some annual year-on-year growth of passenger numbers on the BATORAMA day-trip vessels.

 

TABLE 4: ANNUAL NUMBER OF PASSENGERS ON THE BATORAMA DAY-TRIP VESSELS AND YEAR-ON-YEAR RATE OF CHANGE

YearNumber of passengersRate of change in%
2016714,713-
2017772,852+8.1
2018773,888+0.1
2019785,144+1.5
2020166,535-78.8

Sources: BATORAMA/Port de Strasbourg, CCNR analysis
 

  • The graph clearly shows the significant and severe effect of Covid on passenger numbers in 2020. Compared to the year 2019, the number of passengers dropped by almost 80%. In April and November 2020 (the crucial months of the first and second waves of contagion in Europe), no passengers were registered on the BATORAMA vessels. An upturn was observed in August 2020, but the numbers are evidently much smaller than in previous years.
  • In 2021, the pandemic will likely continue to impact day-trip cruises. Passenger numbers in the early months of 2021 remained extremely low, even taking into account the aforementioned seasonality. Future developments will inevitably be tied to the number of vaccinations and the possible easing of restrictions on the movement of people.