In 2006, AmaWaterways made a small change that would be the start of a much larger transformation of European river cruising. They brought a fleet of bikes onboard. Other cruise lines soon followed. Then hiking excursions were added. Today, most European river cruise lines offer a full array of active excursions that include hiking, kayaking, biking, even jogging in some destinations.
All the traditional excursions are still available. But what was once a staid vacation option can now be anything but. (There's still some work to be done with onboard entertainment in terms of staidness, imo.)
My point? European river cruising is no longer in danger of aging itself out of business.
A precarious position Mississippi River cruising might find itself in 15 to 20 years from now.
Note I specifically said the Mississippi River. River cruise operators on the Columbia and Snake Rivers had a similar epiphany in the late 2010s. The focus on these itineraries used to be almost entirely historical, with an emphasis on Lewis & Clark.
As on the European rivers, that changed when one operator in the area – in this case UnCruise – nixed its Lewis & Clark period sailings and replaced them with adventure sailings. American Queen Voyages (American Queen Steamboat Company, at the time), picked up on the trend and added a selection of active excursions that can include kayaking, guided walks, biking, jet boating and access to jogging trails in several ports.
Today's Columbia and Snake Rivers cruises offer a mix of history and active excursions, giving opening them up to a wider (younger) audience.
The Mississippi River is lagging behind. Way behind. Even on the Upper Mississippi, which like the Columbia and Snake Rivers is awash in natural beauty and active options, you'll rarely find more than one guided bike ride or maybe a kayak tour.
It's a wide open opportunity waiting from someone to grab.
American Queen Voyages already has bikes and the line's new president Cindy D'Aoust plans to expand the number. At a recent dinner onboard American Queen with D'Aoust, she bandied around a few ideas she has to incorporate the bikes, like offering ready-made picnic baskets, which cruisers could then bike with to a local park.
It's a cute idea – and an easy one to start with – and I can see active cruisers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s giving it a try.
But in my mind, it doesn't go far enough. Just because we younger cruisers (as a 50-year-old, I count myself in that group) want to be active, doesn't mean we don't want the "guided" piece of the experience.
Viking, which has the advantage of having been through the European River transformation, is a tiny step ahead – at least on the Upper Mississippi. They've got a guided bike tour near the Quad Cities, along with a kayaking excursion. (AQV offers a kayak tour in the same general area, as well.)
But is one guided bike tour and one kayak excursion, on one itinerary along the entire length of the Mississippi enough to lure cruisers my age onboard (in numbers that can keep a cruise line afloat into the future)? I'd argue no.
I'm not suggesting that Mississippi river cruise operators remove any of their current offerings – which are exactly what their current demographic wants. Only, add options that will start to attract a new demographic. If they don't, there is a real danger of the industry aging itself out.
Do you agree? Think I'm totally off-base? I'd love this to be a conversation! Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.