Fancy drifting down the Rhine River, past castle-topped hillsides stitched together by neat rows of vines? Or floating along the Mississippi into a world of jazz and blues, antebellum towns and Huckleberry landscapes?
It may seem that the great vanishing that afflicted the cruise industry also extended to rivers, but only because river cruising has received little media attention over the last 18 months. River ships did suspend operations for part of 2020, but layups aren’t unusual in the river-cruise industry, where many ships cease sailing over winters and rainy seasons. That makes bringing river ships back into operation relatively easy compared to ocean ships.
Some resumed sailing as early as last year, including on the Murray River here in Australia. River ships have successfully sailed in America since March 2021, and in Europe since July. The early recovery was aided by Americans and Britons who enjoyed relatively unrestricted travel movements, and by river cruising being seen as a safe early travel option. A recent survey of 3000 British customers by Riviera Travel, which operates 12 ships in Europe, found that 79 per cent were leaning towards a river, rather than ocean, cruise owing to perceptions of fewer passengers, less crowding and queuing, more space and, with ready land access, more flexibility if things go wrong.
With our own borders opening up, demand for river cruising is surging among Australians too.
“Our inquiries for travel to Europe have definitely increased and we feel there is a genuine shift in customer confidence,” says Mladen Vukic, APT’s product general manager. “We have been really pleased to see strong demand for our European river cruising product for 2022 and, as such, released our 2023 program ahead of schedule.”
Viking Cruises has also released its 2023 river cruises – the first time an entire Viking season has been made available so far in advance – while My Cruises notes that customers are planning their travel much further ahead of time. My Cruises, long an ocean cruising expert, launched its My River Cruise Collection in August 2021, adroitly anticipating river cruising’s post- COVID resurgence.
“We saw a big opportunity in river cruising after noticing a large demand from the public who wish to experience multiple destinations in regions such as Europe, whilst having the convenience of only unpacking once and the comfort of staying in one luxury cabin throughout their entire holiday,” says My River Cruises chief executive Ryan Thomas.
River cruising is indeed an appealing form of travel amid the tangle of COVID-era regulations and uncertainty, with travellers relying on its organisation, self-containment and refund policies for peace of mind. Longer sailings, river-ocean combinations and post-cruise extensions are proving popular as travellers make up for lost time.
“The convenience of just one booking takes away the stress of managing multiple bookings, connections and transfers,” points out Michelle Black, Australia, NZ managing director of Viking, who notes high demand for cruises longer than 15 days, and especially for Viking’s 23-day “European Sojourn” between Amsterdam and Bucharest.
Meanwhile Emerald Cruises has responded to the demand for lengthier cruises with a new 16-day cruise between Munich and Bucharest and a 23-day cruise between Amsterdam and Bucharest. Ama Waterways is offering the world’s longest river cruise in mid-2023, although the 46-night itinerary through 14 European countries is really four separate back-to-back cruises.
Despite the enthusiasm, those already familiar with river cruising should prepare for changes. Augmented protocols include health screening, daily temperature checks, baggage sanitisation, social- distancing measures and deep cleaning and ventilation between cruises. Crew now wear masks at all times, and some companies require guests to wear masks on board unless seated.
Passengers must be fully vaccinated or present negative COVID tests, depending on the cruise company. Irrespective, travellers will need to be vaccinated in order to comply with airline and on-shore health regulations, and will need to carry the relevant documentation and a photo ID for entry into many museums and tourist attractions – although rules are often haphazardly enforced.
Paperwork has become somewhat more tiresome, especially on ships that cross international borders, such as those on Rhine and Danube River cruises, although on-board staff have become adept at letting passengers know the bureaucratic requirements from one country to another.
The more rigid tourist framework isn’t daunting travellers eager to rediscover the world.
“People are booking what they’ve been missing the most while at home,” observes Anthony Laver, general sales manager of Scenic Group, among which he lists festive-season markets, medieval towns, castles, immersive cultural experiences and special 2022 events such as the Floriade Expo in the Netherlands and Passion Play in Oberammergau.
“Food and cooking have been at the focal point of many of our home lives over the past 18 months, so it’s not surprising there has also been a strong interest in our new France Culinary Cruises,” Laver adds.
Scenic restarted its European river cruises in August in the Douro, Rhine and Bordeaux regions, with Danube cruises relaunching in late September. Most companies restarted operations from mid-2021 following the reopening of the European Union to fully vaccinated American travellers. (Only APT and Travelmarvel, heavily reliant on Australian passengers, have suspended operations until 2022.) Some companies have even launched new ships, including four Viking vessels on the Seine River, and Uniworld’s La Venezia in Venice.
Optimism flows in America as well. American Queen Steamboat Company sold out its 2021 seasons, and 2023 will be its biggest season ever, with 163 cruises on rivers such as the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Columbia, and a new paddle-wheeler, American Countess. Meanwhile Viking launches its first ship on the Mississippi in August 2022, perhaps the first step in a shake-up in what has been a highly protected industry in the USA.
The only destination in the river-cruise doldrums is Asia. Cruises in Myanmar are suspended owing to political unrest, and India and China look uncertain. Pandaw, Asia’s most interesting operator, has ceased operating, saying it can no longer afford the ongoing layup of its 17 ships, potentially for another year.
That still leaves the Mekong River in the sights of Australian river-cruise passengers. Viking’s new 80-passenger Viking Saigon launches in August 2022, and Scenic has released a new nine-night Mekong River cruiseon Scenic Spirit among its 2022-23 itineraries.
Fancy journeying along one of the world’s great waterways, along which mango trees and golden spires sprout, and village kids yell for attention as they leap into the muddy water? In 2022, you can.
Just get booking, or you’ll miss the boat.
American Queen Steamboat Company, phone 1800 507 777, see cruisetraveller.com.au
APT, phone 1300 196 420, see aptouring.com.au
Emerald Cruises, phone 1300 286 110, see emerald cruises.com.au
My Cruises, phone 1300 692 784, see mycruises.com.au
Riviera Travel, phone 1300 857 437, see rivieratravel.com.au
Scenic, phone 13 81 28, see scenic.com.au
Viking Cruises, phone 138 747, vikingcruises.com.au
Brian Johnston has travelled courtesy of numerous river-cruise companies.