Internationally, river cruising is the rising star on inland waterways that are unreachable by larger ocean-going cruise ships.
With the rapid growth of river cruising, which shows no signs of abating, the major river cruise lines - Avalon, APT, Uniworld, Viking and Scenic - are adding to their already burgeoning fleets this year. For example, Scenic will launch its sixth "space ship" river cruiser, Scenic Crystal, with a cruise through Switzerland, France and Germany in April.
Europe continues to be the favourite destination for first-time river cruisers who want to get close to inland cities and experience rural heartlands. However, newer destinations in Russia and Asia are also in the spotlight.
The Mekong River route to Vietnam and Cambodia is expected to be a major hotspot in this year, particularly with Australian travellers who have already explored Europe by land or water.
River cruising is now such a significant player in the overall cruise industry that the Australian company APT was named best international-based cruise operator at the National Travel Industry Awards for 2011.
Traditionally, that award has gone to one of the giant ocean cruise lines owned by an overseas-based company. Privately owned by the McGeary family of Melbourne, APT made its name as a coach tour operator and has, in recent years, invested heavily in river cruising in Europe and other destinations around the world.
Because of their smaller size, river cruise ships do not try to compete with ocean liners in onboard attractions such as water slides, rock climbing walls and ice bars. Instead they focus on service, friendliness, and the all-inclusive nature of a river cruise that includes daily shore excursions. The itinerary is invariably along a legendary river route such as the Rhine or Danube in Europe, the Mekong in Vietnam/Cambodia or along Egypt's Nile and China's Yangtze-kiang, where great civilisations thrived and traded, and where passengers now experience a real slice of history in culturally rich cities and settlements still caught in a time warp.
Many travellers now see a river cruise as a soft adventure. Many challenging destinations can be viewed from their ship, which becomes a home away from home.
And even those who suffer cabin fever on an ocean liner know land is always as close as the river bank.
Why take a river cruise?
• No rush to planes and trains or carting heavy luggage to hotels.
• Settle into a cabin, unpack once.
• Every day brings a new destination to explore.
• Those who have seen a country by land gain new perspectives from the river.
• Visit many cities on one cruise.
• Forget sea sickness as flat-bottomed river ships ensure smooth sailing.
• Focus on informality so passengers get to know one another quickly.