Barging European Waterways, 'Not River Cruising'

Panache Cruising Alsace

Just as a 5,000-passengers cruise ship dwarfs a 200-passenger riverboat, the dozen passengers aboard a barge tour have an entirely different experience.

“Hotel barging along Europe’s network of delightful and intimate canals and rivers enchants the most seasoned of travellers, opening up to levels of cultural, historical and gastronomic dimensions they never believed existed,” Derek Banks, managing director of European Waterways, said in the 2020 European River Cruise Market Report by Cruise Industry News.

Of the company’s 17 vessels, only one accommodates 20 guests, said Marketing Manager Paul Newman.

“We are eight to 12 passengers. And we’re on the canals. So that’s a big jump from sea cruising.” Newman said. “We’re almost not river cruising, if that makes sense.”

The small company offers a niche product with growing demand. “Our boats are as big as they can be to go on the canals, because of the locks and other logistics,” Newman said.

That said, European Waterways is the largest hotel barge company in Europe. Founded in 1974 with just one hotel barge, the company now owns eight and charters nine more with exclusive agreements with the owner-operators.

The six-night cruises primarily ply the canals of France, some crossing into Holland and Germany depending on the season. Two operate in Scotland, and one each in Italy, England, and Ireland.

“It’s definitely top end. It’s a different kind of five star. It’s not glitzy glamour. It’s almost understated luxury with people who really understand what luxury is. It’s not shiny. It’s what real luxury is,” he said.

The cabins are not excessively large and there is no ballroom, but the immersion into fine food and wine, and intimate proximity to the historical countryside drives the experience. “It’s paying for that expertise.”

A two-to-one passenger-to-crew ratio serves a mostly retired, successful, over-60 to above-80-year-old demographic. Most passengers are Americans, with those sourced from the UK, Australia, South Africa, Russia, and Brazil filling in the remaining 40 percent.

“It’s a slightly slower paced holiday. They may have been to Paris and the cities and have done all that and now want to get off the track and do something different, a little quirky,” Newman said. “They can have dinner with countesses in castles. It’s really kind of up close and personal.”

The barge tours are not, however, particularly popular with European passengers, for whom this countryside is anything but exotic. They can drive by anytime they like. “It’s definitely a product for long-haul travel. It’s a bit too close to home to spend that kind of money. It’s more a bucket list item,” he said. But for someone from Asia, or North America, it’s a strong selling point. “It’s quintessential France. It’s the countryside. It’s the experience. It’s not something you can get on your doorstep.”

About the 2020 European Cruise River Market Report 

The new European Cruise Market Report provides a comprehensive look at the river cruise business with capacity metrics by river and brand, company profiles and much more. 100+ pages of insights. Learn more. 


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