European river cruising is one of the most rewarding ways to travel. It's perhaps what I've missed the most during the past year.
You can't beat embarking on a voyage with a small group of people who quickly become your new friends while experiencing the delightful sights, sounds and tastes of historic cities and villages along great waterways like the Danube or Rhine rivers.
Well, there is growing hope that we will be able to get back onboard the river ships. I spoke with a handful of cruise line executives and river cruise travel advisors to get a sense of where things stand with river cruising.
Rudi Schreiner, co-founder and president of AmaWaterways, says his line will be starting in May with German cruisers. But 95 percent of the line's passengers comes from North America, so getting those travelers back onboard is vital.
Questions remain, however, for these travelers: What travel restrictions will exist for North Americans? Will vaccines or quarantines we be required?
Since fall 2020, AmaWaterways has seen more and more spring 2021 bookings shifted to fall, winter and 2022 sailings, instead, Schreiner said. He says his gut tells him that August might be the starting point for AmaWaterways cruises in Europe once again for North Americans. However, he says the line remains fully flexible because it has seen how things can change so quickly, whether a new spike in cases prompts enhanced protocols or shutdowns and travel restrictions.
When considering whether to implement rules that crew members be vaccinated, he says he has questions about the availability of vaccines for crew within their home countries. So, there is no plan to require vaccines for crew or passengers at this time.
Everybody wants to get all crew members vaccinated, but Schreiner says the question will be: "Will the governments first vaccinate their elder people. Which side will be vaccinated first?"
He says AmaWaterways has not committed to any requirements for guests of crew to be vaccinated. There are too many questions to be answered still, he said.
Changes onboard are inevitable, though.
"Something we even thought about before this pandemic, was to really change the food service on AmaWaterways ships," Schreiner says. "We really want to go to a full-service standard in all of our restaurants."
This will eliminate the need to keep the full buffet open all the way until the end of the breakfast or lunch times. This will tremendously reduce the food waste and give AmaWaterways' cruisers more choices, he says.
The line also expects to offer more al fresco dining. This was something that was accelerated because of the pandemic.
"Handshakes, social distancing and other interactions among cruisers will probably not go back to the way it was, at least for a while," he says. "I think COVID will stick around for a long time. People will get used to it. We'll get a regular vaccine for it, like the flu. And we will live with it."
Schreiner says he sees "a huge, bright future for river cruising."
There will be a lot of demand for small-ship environments, he said.
"One thing about river cruising: You spend a lot of time off the ship. And you spend a lot of time outdoors in the fresh air and in smaller villages," Schreiner says. "There will be more emphasis on activities like walking, hiking and bicycling. For that, I think we have the right environment."
He said that while cruise lines might be offering sailings by summer 2021, "I am currently not booking before October 2021.
"Vaccinations will be a key, if not a requirement, for future European river cruising," Gawne said.
He also said that there is a pent-up demand for European river cruising but the lines will be sailing at reduced occupancy capacity.
I also I put forth a Q&A to two executives that oversee some of the most popular European river cruise lines. Here is what Rob Voss, chief operating officer of Scenic Group Global, which operates Scenic River Cruises and Emerald Waterways and Pam Hoffee, managing director of Avalon Waterways, had to say about the future of river cruising in Europe.
In The Loop Travel: What hurdles remain to overcome before you can return to river cruising in Europe?
Voss (Scenic): The situation in Europe remains the biggest hurdle. The number of cases, the lockdowns, border crossing requirements, each country's specific needs/issues, etc. We must be able to supply the guest experience they are looking for and expect and with numerous venues closed and/or affected by the economic damage caused by COVID, we need to have some level of confidence that there is a consistent and similar process for each country we cruise through on the rivers and port in with the ocean. At this point, Europe is not yet ready for travelers -- whether international or domestic. The other hurdle has to do with the source markets -- Australia, for example, has strict travel restrictions for its citizens; while Canada has shut down its ports to cruises until 2022. So, the issue becomes one of both where we get our guests from and where we can take them.
ITLT: What should your guests expect or plan for before they take their next river cruise in Europe? New health measures and protocols, vaccine requirements, etc.?
Hoffee (Avalon Waterways): Our guests' safety, health and well-being leads every decision. To this end, when travel operations resume, Avalon Waterways will require proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 at least 14-days prior to travel or a negative COVID-19 test within 72-hours of travel. Alternatively, guests can provide documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the last three months.
Voss (Scenic): We continue to follow the protocols and suggestions made by the CDC, WHO and CLIA as well as working with multiple countries' health agencies to make sure we go above and beyond for our guests and crew. At this point, as we have seen for the past year, the environment is ever-changing and we will remain flexible in response. The basics are already in place -- PCR testing, new hygiene protocols, adding medical assistance onboard the ships, cabins set aside for quarantine needs, excursions are adjusted and organized to be the safest possible, dining and social events are done with proper protocols, etc.
But we know the COVID safety requirements are still a moving target so we need to see how the roles of each entity involved in the travel experience process plays out. As an example of the complexity of the situation -- even before a guest reaches our ship, they will most likely have to undergo a PCR test before leaving their country (and certainly before they return), possibly be required to have a vaccine passport, and myriad other requirements. All these barriers must be crossed before they arrive at our ship.
ITLT: How do you think cruising will be changed? For the near term, long term?
Voss (Scenic): I think the near term is self-explanatory: Lots of flexibility and patience will be required by both the cruise lines and their guests as new protocols are established and adjusted. I see that being something we will deal with for a couple of years. The more interesting changes may come in the two- to five-year time frame.
I believe we will go back to how it was before but with some clear caveats. Understanding that these health disruptions have been part of the landscape for the past 20 years, we cannot let our guard down and be complacent. Certain health and safety protocols need to remain and we will certainly keep them front and center on our ships. Hygiene, masks where needed, care with social distancing, etc. are part of the future landscape.
On the more positive side of changes, I see the trend from big ship cruising to small ship cruising accelerating. Guests are looking for safety with smaller numbers of people, and the opportunities that are more available with small ship cruising -- whether the ocean or rivers. We believe the luxury market will continue to expand and grow with ships offering more space per guest and more uniqueness of the guest experience.
Above all else is my absolute belief that cruising will not only survive this horrific global tragedy but will continue to grow as a key way to explore the world. We are already seeing strong bookings for 2022 and 2023 as the love of cruising and exploring for so many of our guests is something that becomes part of who they are and what they need in their lives.
Hoffee (Avalon Waterways): While the world has changed a lot in the last year, two very important things have not changed for Avalon Waterways: The importance we place on guest health and safety and our dedication to delivering travelers a wonderful vacation.
In the near term, life onboard our ships will mirror life at home including social distancing, masks when you can't be distanced, hand sanitizer and enhanced cleaning protocols.
Travelers will also enjoy the intimacy that small-ship cruising gives to travelers more than ever before. And, we think new dining options, including a shift from self-serve buffets to a la carte or crew-served meals, as well as more options for in-room dining, will be popular.
Off our ships, outdoor experiences will be big. As a result, we think our Active & Discovery vacations will draw even more travelers thanks to their off-the-beaten-path ports-of-call and wide range of included excursions.
Long-term, we believe that new ports-of-call, undiscovered destinations and immersive excursions -- featuring a wide-range of choice -- will grow in importance.
ITLT: When are you hoping/expecting to be able to offer voyages in Europe once again?
Voss (Scenic): Hoping is the right word. We will offer our voyages as soon as it is safe and makes sense -- and our guests are ready. It is so much more important to get global control of this pandemic.
We are viewing 2021 as a transition year with a slow reopening of the cruise itineraries and guests coming back on board. Our hope/expectation is that as vaccinations grow significantly and safety protocols are put in place, we will see the second half of 2021 be one of carefully getting back into the water. I have no doubt that there will be numerous adjustments to the processes by both cruise lines and governments but we are hopeful they will be tweaks and not major changes. 2022 and 2023 are where we are seeing the strongest growth -- and when we see the cruise industry begin to look more like it did in 2019.
Hoffee (Avalon Waterways): Avalon Waterways is ready to welcome travelers onboard as soon as the world is ready. When borders open in Europe, we will operate. We are encouraged that with vaccine rollout and coordinated testing, that can happen soon.
When do you think you'll be ready for a European river cruise? Let us know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,