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Large cruise ship on Sognefjord near Gudvangen in the western area of Norway.

Large cruise ship on Sognefjord near Gudvangen in the western area of Norway.

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One of the biggest operators in river cruises has named four brand new 950-cabin ships in Amsterdam, marking a major new investment in one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry.

Viking River Cruises invited Joanna Lumley to be godmother of Odin and claimed a world record with the simultaneous christening of four vessels: Odin and her sister “Viking longship” Idun, plus Freya and Njord, to highlight a £250m investment in its fleet over three years.

The 443ft Viking vessels each carry 190 passengers: they include two Explorer Suites, the largest in Europe, each featuring a living room, bedroom and private veranda.

Smaller ships which sail along rivers and canals attract a different clientele to mighty super-liners and, with luxurious interior standards, they often achieve higher prices.

In the annual UK Cruise Survey PSA Director Bill Gibbons said: “The appeal of a river cruise has never been stronger.

“Passengers enjoy panoramic landscapes and easy access to explore the heart of great cities and towns, all while just unpacking once. This year will see 12 new river cruise vessels, and some wonderful new itineraries.”

Viking will add six ships this year and six next, to build a fleet of 31 by 2013, reflecting the surge of interest in river cruising in Europe.

In the past decade, the number of people taking river cruises worldwide each year has soared, with around 80,000 of them from Britain last year alone.

The most popular rivers are the Rhine/Moselle and the Danube. The number of British passengers choosing a combined cruise along the Rhine and Danube doubled last year, with the Rhone and Seine seeing a combined increase of 28 per cent.

The Duoro in Portugal has seen a doubling in the number of British visitors since 2009, while the Far East/China also offers river cruise options. Only the River Nile has seen a fall in bookings, due to the political unrest.

In 2011, British passengers spent £179m on the river cruise market, with an average price paid of £1,574.

Steve Williams, managing director of Fred. Olsen Travel predicts the river cruise market will see a further surge in UK bookings. Travellers use the boat as a base for luxury city breaks, he says: “More upmarket European river cruising is on the way for 2012-3, continuing the trend of the last three or four years.”

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