• Information about the market structure, economic and employment trends, are essential in order to understand and interpret quantitative data available regarding the European inland navigation sector labour market.



  • River cruises in Europe have been in existence since the 1960s. Economically, the river cruise market is a flourishing sector, which is confirmed by analysing different indicators from the supply and demand side. On the supply side, the newbuilding rate has been following a wave-like pattern over the last 20 years, with a peak around 2014. In 2019 and 2020, 19 new river cruise vessels entered the market in the EU. The newbuilding rate was somehow smaller in 2021 (9) and 2022 (5), due to the Covid pandemic. The number of active cruise vessels on European rivers increased by 68% between 2012 and 2022, with 243 vessels in 2012 rising to 410 vessels in 2022.4 In 1995, there were only 50 cruise vessels operational in Europe.
  • On the demand side, the number of persons who travel on a river cruise has been growing for several years, and between 2012 and 2019 this more than doubled, with up to 1.79 million passengers in 2019, highly driven by cruisers from non-European countries. River cruise vessel traffic has also increased. The yearly number of cruise vessels passing the lock of Iffezheim on the Upper Rhine has increased from 1,603 transits in 2012 to 2,737 transits in 2022 (+70%), with a peak in 2019 (almost 3,000 transits). The same peak in passenger transport was observed in the Danube region river cruise segment. The demand for river cruises in 2020 and 2021 was strongly affected by the Covid pandemic. Many vessels were “on hold” for an entire year, some of the oldest and less efficient vessels were even sold. For instance, in 2020, the number of cruise vessels operating on the Danube, Rhine and Moselle decreased by 91% (Danube), 82% (Rhine) and 70% (Moselle). The second semester of 2021 showed the first signs of recovery while pre-pandemic levels were achieved only in the first semester of 2022.5
  • Figures show that river cruises have been experiencing a boom since 2013 (except for the Covid years 2020 and 2021), mainly due to the large number of US tourists booking river cruise holidays and more recently Chinese tourists, with an ever-increasing passenger demand.
  • This positive evolution is reflected in employment figures for the whole passenger transport sector, which overall followed a positive trend in Europe until 2018. A remarkable decrease between 2019 and 2020 was noticeable as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which interrupted the positive trend observed since 2010. The number of employed persons in the EU numbered 17,895 in 2010, 23,100 in 2019 and 17,503 in 2020. By 2021, employment had recovered only to a limited extent, reaching 18,412 persons.
  • In light of available data, it is not possible to provide accurate figures on the number of persons employed in the accommodation and gastronomic activity on European river cruise vessels. IG RiverCruise estimates that the number of persons active in this field is five times higher than the number of persons working in the nautical field.
  • The river cruise industry is characterised by international and rather complex company structures. For example, a river cruise vessel may be registered in Switzerland, with a crew having Cypriot employment contracts, hosting guests from Europe and overseas, and then might cross several countries during its journey.
  • In contrast to the early days when a ship owner also dealt with all the main aspects of a river cruise (hotel management, nautical aspects, etc.), four main types of players running a river cruise business can nowadays be identified.


    Source: CCNR based on IG RiverCruise


  • As far as freight transport is concerned, transport performance (in million TKM) in the European countries has followed a decreasing trend over the last ten years. In 2020, the health crisis affected the sector, which registered a decrease of 8.2% in transport performance, compared to 2019. A recovery could be observed in 2021 and at the beginning of 2022, but the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine in February 2022 provoked a reduction of cargo transport. From a labour perspective, the freight market has a different background and follows different trends compared to the passenger transport market. However, the situation also differs depending on the countries, the years and the market segments under study.
  • The macro-economic context of the last years has been severely affected by three main crises. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences weighed heavily on many economic sectors. The slowdown in global production and international trade, together with the restrictions on domestic and international mobility, provoked a decline in both passenger and freight transport demands. Additionally, the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine caused the disruption of the supply of goods imported from Russia and Ukraine, and also led to a decrease in cargo transport on the Rhine and the Danube for almost all goods segments. There were however exceptions to this decrease, for example, the transport of coal on the Rhine boomed in 2022 as coal substituted gas in the energy sector. On the Danube, however, coal transport decreased both due to the EU ban on coal imports from Russia, and the reduced production in the steel industry.
  • As stated above, there were exceptions to the decrease in freight transport. More specifically for the Danube, the blockade of Ukrainian seaports and the need to support Ukrainian exports of grain via alternative routes led to an exceptional increase of grain transport on the maritime Danube (Kilia Danube branch and Sulina Canal) as well as on the Danube Black Sea Canal to Constanţa.
  • Furthermore, the low water periods of 2021 and 2022 affected transport volumes and freight rates severely. Another phenomenon that is expected to play an important role on transport volumes in inland navigation is energy transition.
  • The overall decrease in the freight inland navigation labour market, also described by many IWT actors, can also be explained by the financial crisis, which had a negative impact on the volumes of goods transported at the time of the crisis and therefore on the demand for nautical personnel. Those volumes were in part not recovered which leads to the conclusion that the crisis can still be felt today.
  • In parallel to the general trend according to which operations on board of vessels are becoming more complex, and specifically in the liquid cargo segment, the transport of dangerous goods has also become far more complex in the last ten years. Important steps have been taken in the area of safety and quality, thereby further increasing the requirements and qualifications necessary to work in this field. Another interesting development relates to the changing corporate structure of tanker barging companies, which are seen to be moving away from the traditional family-owned company type towards a structure with shareholders.
  • An important topic for the long-term economic and employment trend in freight transport is how to organise the succession between generations within freight companies. Around 80% of all inland waterway freight companies in western Europe are small independent barge owner-operators. The succession of the activity in these companies must be seen in the light of economic and social aspects. Company succession in inland navigation is directly influenced by several factors, in particular:
    – economic factors: demand for evolution and economic outlook in a given market segment, overall economic framework conditions, etc.
    – labour and social factors: age structure of a given segment, working conditions, appropriate work/life balance, previous knowledge of the sector concerned, etc.
    – company and asset related factors: characteristics of the company such as its size and profitability, the type of assets concerned and the technical features (vessels that are old or modern, large or small, green or polluting), financing conditions for investments.
  • In this regard, interviews with experts from the banking sector were carried out in order to identify those critical factors that influence company succession in the IWT sector. Overall, such interviews allowed to determine the following conclusions. Some of them represent the result of macroeconomic factors and, as such, are not expected to be long-lasting. Others could be considered as structural factors of the IWT sector.
    – The dry cargo market is more difficult for company succession compared to the liquid cargo or container market which benefit from better economic framework conditions. Nevertheless, in 2022, the sharp demand for coal caused by the energy crisis and the transfer of vessel capacity from the Rhine to the Danube region, led to favourable market conditions in terms of transport demand, also for the dry cargo segment. However, these favourable market conditions are considered as temporary.
    – Whether the vessel is modern or not and whether “greening” investments have already been made appear as critical issues for company succession. Moreover, the rise of shipbuilding costs exacerbates this issue.
    – Social factors and working conditions have increasingly become key factors. Indeed, there is a low incentive for younger entrepreneurs to take over an existing business if it entails a heavy and demanding workload, if the economic outlook of the market segment is difficult, and if costly technical investments in the vessel have to be undertaken. This is generally the case for smaller barge owners-operators who tend to work long hours away from home, possibly combined with wages that are not very attractive.
    – Based on results of interviews, it can be assumed that sections of the younger generation favour land-based jobs with regular periods of time off and weekends at home, in comparison with their parents’ generation.
    – Cooperatives (which are especially observed in the dry cargo market) are seen as an effective concept to foster company succession, as they allow for better social, logistical and economic conditions for vessel-owners and operators.
    – All in all, the market shows a bit more consolidation than before, e.g. a single vessel owner starts to own two, a three-vessel owner acquires two more vessels and now has five.
    – Vertical integration (see info box below) is also presented as an important goal for IWT in the future which would facilitate company succession.


    Vertical integration in logistics - and in particular in inland navigation - could exist in various forms. In general, it means that an IWT company does not only transport goods from point A to point B, and therefore has an influence on the backward and forward parts of the logistics chain. Backward vertical integration is present if an inland waterway transport company also owns the freight forwarding process which is quite often done by other (larger) logistics firms. These freight forwarders negotiate volumes and freight rates with large clients from the chemical, petrochemical, agri-food, or steel industry.
    If inland navigation companies took over this role, by backward vertical integration, they would gain more influence on freight rates. A forward vertical integration would mean that inland navigation companies could also control the selling and marketing of the products that they are transporting, for example by owning trading or marketing companies. This would give them more insight into the development of the demand side, and in market conditions of the products they are transporting. Source: CCNR



    ING Bank
    Interview partners (2019): Rico Luman, Sector Economist Transport, Logistics, Chemicals; Arthur de Bot, Relationship Manager Transport and Logistics

    Company succession must be seen in the context of the economic development of the inland navigation sector. In the years after the 2008/2009 financial crisis, the number of bankruptcies increased. Banks tried to help the companies by postponing reimbursements of loans so that companies could continue to be active in the sector.

    Even if there was a recovery from the financial crisis, the long-term economic framework conditions have deteriorated again in recent years. This concerns notably energy transition and the phasing out of coal. This structural change has a strong impact on transport volumes in IWT. In the agricultural sector, the high amount of nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands puts pressure on this sector to reduce its output. Overall, these difficult economic framework conditions represent a rather problematic basis for company succession in the dry cargo segment. These structural framework conditions do not make it easy for young entrepreneurs willing to work in the sector and develop a profitable business plan.

    Another aspect which is important for company succession is the size of companies. By far, the large majority of inland navigation companies in western Europe are very small barge owner companies with only one vessel. Small companies often face more financial risks and less access to loans when faced with necessary technical modernisation. Long working hours, including during the weekends, are an important factor, especially in the case of small independent barge owner-operators. At the same time, the earning capacity of small companies is limited, due to a restricted loading capacity of the vessels. Taken together, these conditions often fail to generate a high incentive for the younger generation to take over companies from their parents. The ING Bank underlines that investment in greening the vessels is a ‘trigger point’ for company succession.

    The liquid cargo market is characterised by a different company structure. The average size of inland navigation companies is larger in the liquid cargo market and the number of employees is higher compared to the dry cargo market.

    Container transport also has a more growth-orientated economic outlook than dry cargo transport. The liner service structure (24-hour service) makes it easier to earn money and to reimburse loans. In the Netherlands, national container transport is a growth market (this is also shown in statistical data from Eurostat).
    Interview partner (2019): Marco van Beek, Sector Manager Inland Navigation.
    Update of the interview (2023) with Peter Maat, Account Manager.

    Similar conclusions are reached regarding the situation in the various market segments. The liquid cargo market has a more modern fleet and with companies of a larger size, providing more incentive for company succession. The outlook for the transport of chemicals is positive, making the liquid cargo market overall profitable for the future.

    The confluence of the sharp increase in coal demand, limited capacity availability due to the transfer of vessels from the Rhine to the Danube and the restrictions caused by the low water periods in 2021 and 2022 led market conditions for the IWT sector to become extremely favourable in terms of freight rates and turnover.

    Current market conditions are leading to an increase of issuing time charters and co-ownership. Cooperatives could be a possible solution for small barge owners, also in the dry cargo market, to team up and develop size and scale advantages, thereby allowing economies of scale and lower transport costs to be realised. This is important in the logistics sector. Larger companies or cooperatives could also have more bargaining power for negotiating freight rates and would be more able to achieve a vertical integration within the whole supply chain. Vertical integration is considered as an important topic for inland navigation and should be seen as a goal for the future.

    Nevertheless, the rise in shipbuilding costs resulted in increasing difficulties for newbuilding activity, especially for the dry cargo sector, which remain on a much lower level compared to liquid cargo.

    Another factor that is affecting company succession is the shortage of personnel and the consequent increase of labour costs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation exacerbated following the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine which provoked many Ukrainian nautical crew in going back home, therefore contributing to a further increase in labour shortages.
    ABN AMRO bank
    Interview partner: Albert Jan Swaart, Sector Economist Industry, Transport and Logistics

    Many of the young entrepreneurs who aspire to start their own business in inland navigation and who are eager to take risks come from IWT families.

    Cooperatives (such as NPRC6 ) could be a solution to organise supply chain management in a better way, also regarding the social life of the barge owner-operators in inland navigation. They would make it easier to organise transport activities in such a way that barge owners can be at home at the weekend. This would be an important incentive for company succession, given that many young entrepreneurs want to have families and be at home over the weekends.

    Staff shortage is already a major problem in inland navigation, and it is important that young people also have “social” incentives so as to become barge owner-operators. Moreover, the ageing population has contributed to tightening the Dutch labour market.

    The IWT dry cargo market gained favourable economic conditions due to the sharp increase in coal transport. Even if the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine caused a decline in cargo transport on the Rhine for almost all cargo segment, coal transport, which already started to increase in 2021, significantly increased due to the rise in energy prices.
    Ostfriesische Volksbank
    Interview partner (2019): Dieter Schneider, Head of Bank für Schifffahrt. Following the update of the interview (2023), it is possible to state that the main conclusions are currently still valid.

    An important point for the foundation or the succession of a company in IWT is to present a solid business plan, which should also include a freight forwarding concept. Indeed, freight forwarding companies often participate even financially in the acquisition of a new vessel, hence the added value for young entrepreneurs to be in contact with these freight forwarding companies. Such relationships are win-win solutions as both parties have an interest in future inland waterway transport with modern vessels. During the process of company succession, contacts between banks, the entrepreneur and the freight forwarding company are intensive.

    Among company successions, several different models exist. Often, young entrepreneurs come from an IWT family and have already been working on a vessel for several years. As they want to become more independent, they decide to invest in their own vessel. Given that older vessels are often more costly in maintenance and that it is more difficult to install a new engine in older and smaller vessels, company succession is often combined with the acquisition of a new vessel. There are also other models possible, for example, where a son of an owner-operator continues to sail with his father’s vessel on the latter’s retirement.


  • All market segments in inland navigation are facing staff shortage issues. More specifically, there is a shortage of qualified personnel at management level. In addition, the lack of qualified boatmasters can generally be observed, especially in tank vessel operation. Furthermore, a sufficient number of highly qualified personnel are needed in the emerging passenger navigation market.
  • Over the last decades the shortage of labour force could partly be counterbalanced by technological innovations as well as by the enhanced mobility of crew members from countries inside and outside Europe. However, in the long run, a shortage due to fewer new workers on the market compared to those retiring should become more intense, putting additional strain on existing staff. Therefore, the ageing workforce is a great challenge for the inland navigation labour market of today and tomorrow.
  • In addition, a rapid change in work attitudes between generations has been observed over several years. In fact, while the so-called baby-boomers still followed traditional work patterns, putting work at the centre of their lives, the younger generations, who are now the major workforce, have another vision. They are more focused on self-development and well-being, and thus consider that work should no longer have a central place in their lives and that there should be greater flexibility in terms of working hours.7
  • Significant migration from eastern Europe to western Europe can be witnessed since the terms and conditions in the west are far more attractive than in the east (the Danube region in particular) and most nautical staff find better paid work in the west. The staff shortage accentuates this west-east divide, therefore worsening the staff shortage issues in the Danube region.
  • To accommodate for the urgent need of new crew, apart from the recruitment of alternative personnel which is seen as a limited solution, some new developments have been witnessed. For instance, the Netherlands put in place short track training courses to refugees if they are willing to work in the sector, and Germany has also taken a similar initiative. According to the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), another phenomenon is that crew from Romania and other countries are taking up work in the context of the solidarity lanes in the lower Danube area. To replace such crew members on freight vessels, personnel from countries such as the Philippines or Indonesia are said to receive Schengen visas to work in the inland navigation sector, thereby opening the doors to the European labour market for holders of these visas. However, ETF expressed doubts regarding the future of those workers (possible absence of social security, compliance with crew requirements…). A similar development is said to have been particularly visible already in the non-nautical staff of the river cruise market over a longer period of time. In addition, equipment and technology used on inland vessels are becoming more and more complex. Therefore, inland navigation companies are seeking to hire more specialised and better qualified crew members. An example relates to the additional provisions concerning the expertise of crew members of inland vessels propelled by liquefied natural gas (LNG), for which a specific certificate of qualification is now required. With the emergence of new alternative fuels and energy carriers, additional requirements may also be expected. Crew members will for instance have to integrate the management of hybrid or multiple modes of propulsion.
  • CESNI/QP is developing standards for new competences related to alternative energies, to meet the requests from the training institutes and from the sector.
  • Moreover, the transport sector is now taking a quantum leap towards more automated/digitised processes and systems. This makes the traditional professional profiles shift towards highly skilled IT levels. Meeting such new jobs requirements is expected to become an additional hurdle for existing personnel in the future and to fuel the staff shortage issue further. At the same time, the development of automated navigation is also seen as one possible way to mitigate to a certain extent this staff shortage issue, also by creating new career paths, e.g. in remote operation centres.
  • Finally, the implementation of the EU directive on the recognition of professional qualifications in inland navigation since 18 January 2022, has led to more demanding requirements for professional certification. It was reported that in Belgium, this has weighed on the available work force and is said to have led to a decrease in issuing certificates of qualification.



  • Inland navigation workers are key drivers for inland navigation dynamics, and it is of utmost importance that inland navigation is sufficiently appealing, especially for young talents with entrepreneurial and innovation-oriented mindsets. In Belgium, the implementation of the EU directive also had an impact on the number of graduates in the inland waterway transport sector because of the absence of appropriate training courses to obtain the certification required by the directive. Efforts to ensure the attractiveness of the sector and to offer high-quality education are therefore paramount. The availability and development of appropriate training programmes is key to solving the staff shortage issue.
  • Figure 2 shows the evolution of the number of apprentices in Germany in the inland navigation sector. Following a strong decrease in the 1990s, the number of apprentices in the inland navigation sector increased in Germany between 2000 and 2009 in a catch-up effect, supported by state aid and new importance attributed to the apprentices in the CCNR manning tables since 2002. As in other sectors, the number of apprentices decreased between 2009 and 2016 with a higher number of young people taking up university education. Other contributing factors lie in the economic crisis in the inland navigation industry whose effects can still be felt today, as well as a possible demographic effect (fewer young people of apprenticeship age).
  • However, for the first time in the last decade, a considerable increase has been seen since 2016. Altogether, the evolution in the number of apprentices since the year 2000 could be partly explained by the economic boom (2000-2008) and recession (2009-2015) during this period, which also had a strong impact on the IWT industry and could have influenced the tendency of young people to enter the industry. The period from 2016 to 2019 might not be known as a boom, but it was at least a time when the inland navigation industry recovered from the financial crisis of 2009.
  • The years 2020, 2021 and 2022 registered a consistent decrease in the number of apprentices. The number of Germans who undertook a traineeship as inland navigation crew members lessened from 405 in 2018 to 330 in 2021 and 309 in 2022 (including 48 who carried out the newly created traineeship to become a boatmaster and of whom two are women). In 2021, 41 of the 330 apprentices were female. Compared to 2019, the share of women within the total number of apprentices increased, rising from 7% to 12.4% in 2021. In 2022, this number reached 33, representing a share of 10.7%.


    Source: Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Deutscher Industrie- und Handelskammertag)

  • In addition, the Federal institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) reports on the newly concluded training contracts each year in Germany. In 2022, 15 contracts were concluded for the qualification boatmaster, and 93 for other crew members.


    Source: Federal institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB)