The 2019 European river cruise season is getting underway amid questions about whether too much supply, last year’s historically low water levels or other factors are leading to discounting. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked about the industry with Wolfgang Luftner, co-owner of Luftner Cruises, the parent company of Amadeus River Cruises, who is largely credited with helping to start the industry.
Q: There has been talk in recent years of companies building too many river ships. Are you concerned about supply?
A: No. The demand is there. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and every year they say probably there are too many ships. But if you are on the river, you don’t really see that many passenger ships. On the Rhine you see a lot of cargo ships. But on the passenger side, you can cruise on the Danube for an hour and you don’t see any other passenger ships. Even between Passau, Germany, and Budapest it’s not crowded. We think there’s still plenty of room for growth because we see the increased demand, increased interest coming from other continents, including Asia and Australia. So river cruising is really still regarded as the best, ideal way to see Europe.
Q: What challenges do you see for the industry?
A: Our concern is the maintenance of the waterways. I was invited to Brussels to talk to EU officials [during the low-water events last year]. We worked together with the cargo ships to prepare a presentation on the importance of the waterways. I think it was helpful because there are a few spots on the river where we have difficulties because there are rocks.
Q: Is there something that could have been done from a maintenance or infrastructure standpoint to prevent the low-water issues that disrupted the cargo and passenger traffic?
A: I would say so. And it’s not expensive. … Last year helped them understand that it can be a problem. They found out that they could not put on the cargo ships enough oil and diesel and gasoline, and there was a shortage in some areas. You always have to have a certain situation where they understand how important the waterways are.
Q: Is there an official organization of river and cargo ships working together on this?
A: It’s not really official, but there is an organization called Pro Danube, and they really have a good relationship with the EU. And we kind of use them to talk to those decision-makers.
Q: How do the levels look this year?
A: The winter was very good. We had a lot of snow. And there is still a lot of snow in the mountains Still, throughout the year we need some rain. But after last year we are not too much afraid, because we saw that we can handle it.
Q: Do you think the demand for river cruising will continue booming as many have been predicting?
A: Yes. It is very good. … Of course, there will be challenges. We have had them, and some of them were quite serious: the low water, terrorist events. But still the river cruise always remains strong. We see it now in Britain. They have the problem with Brexit. But still the rivers are strong.
And I have to say, it’s always interesting. But with rivers, unlike hotels which are in a fixed place, you can adapt if there’s a problem.
Q: What about attracting younger passengers? I know you have done a cruise or two with young influencers to test that demographic.
A: It needs time. It takes time for the younger generation to see it as a way to travel. They are still all about how fast can I go from one place to another. On the river, it’s not about how fast you go from A to B, it’s to see between A and B. We believe there is definitely a future, but you cannot force it.
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