River cruising could return ‘fairly quickly’ after COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, says industry icon

Jan 14, 2021

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River cruise ships that cater to North Americans could be back to normal operations by the summer (or soon thereafter) if a significant number of Americans are vaccinated for COVID-19, according to one of the industry’s leading figures.

“I think it will normalize fairly quickly,” Rudi Schreiner, the co-founder and president of AmaWaterways told TPG in an exclusive interview. “We’ll see how it is in the summertime, but the main thing is really how quickly the distribution [of the vaccine] will be.”

Schreiner told TPG he expected river cruising in Europe — the world’s primary destination for river trips — to initially resume just for Europeans in the spring. It would then become available to North Americans later in the spring or the summer as the vaccination rates among Americans hit a critical mass.

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Europe is the most popular region of the world for river cruising among North Americans. Home to a large number of scenic rivers that pass by historic towns, castles, abbeys and wineries, it’s home to more than 100 river cruise vessels operated by U.S.-based river cruise companies.

“I still do hope that, by the end of spring, we’ll see the first things happening [in Europe],” he said. “And then I think by the summertime we should be well on our way [to a full recovery].”

River cruise ships that cater to North Americans in Europe and other parts of the world haven’t been operating for nearly a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The AmaWaterways ships AmaVida sailing on the Douro River in Portugal. (Photo courtesy of AmaWaterways)

Many European countries are not allowing Americans to visit for now. But Schreiner said he expected European countries would start lifting travel restrictions in the coming months once vaccination rates go up and case counts start coming down.

By then, the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak on a river ship will be much diminished, he suggested.

Schreiner noted there was a good chance either individual countries in Europe or the airlines that fly to them could require Americans to show proof of vaccination before heading to the continent for a river cruise. If that was the case, it’s hard to imagine a coronavirus outbreak happening on a Europe-based river vessel, he said.

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“If it comes to the point where vaccination is required, then there shouldn’t be really any cases or any threat. Because even if … one person [on board] has it, the majority are probably vaccinated and shouldn’t be affected.”

Schreiner is widely considered one of the visionaries behind the growth of river cruising over the past 30 years, and he is seen as something of an oracle for the industry.

He told TPG that AmaWaterways was ready to resume sailings just as soon as cases come down and travel restrictions are lifted.

AmaWaterways operates 22 vessels on European rivers. It also markets single vessels on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia, the Nile in Egypt and the Chobe River in Africa.

“We are able within days to start operations,” Schreiner said of the line’s European operation. “So, from our side, we are just basically on the sideline waiting for when this will happen.”

Like other river lines that operate in Europe, AmaWaterways typically doesn’t operate sailings in January or February, when it’s cold across the continent. So it hasn’t had to cancel any sailings since December.

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The line normally starts up operations in Europe for the year around the third week of March and continues operations through December.

Schreiner said that many North Americans who had booked voyages for the early part of the coming season — March, April and May — already had pushed back the trips until later in the year.

“A lot of people are moving away from those [early season] dates,” he said. “We see kind of a stable July [for bookings] and increases from August on through the end of the year.”

Still, even if there are few people booked on early-season sailings, the line still will operate them if changes in travel restrictions allow, Schreiner said.

“We’ll be ready,” he said.

AmaWaterways is no stranger to operating during the global health crisis. While it hasn’t offered cruises for North Americans since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic in March, it resumed sailings on the Rhine in July for Germans only.

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The voyages, involving a single ship and arranged on short notice, were designed in partnership with a local German tour operator that chartered the vessel. They continued for four months without a single coronavirus-related incident.

Germany was able to keep COVID-19 far more under control during the summer and fall than the United States, prompting the German government to allow domestic travel within the country.

As part of the return to sailing in July, AmaWaterways implemented a wide range of anti-coronavirus measures, including a mask-wearing requirement, pre-boarding health screenings, COVID-19 tests for the crew, daily temperature checks for passengers and crew, and the removal of self-service dining.

The line also drastically cut the passenger capacity of the ship to allow for social distancing. Many sailings went out with just 55 or 60 passengers on board even though the vessel, AmaKristina, was designed for around 170 passengers.

Schreiner said it was a great learning experience for the company.

He also noted it would be a lot easier for river cruise lines to get back to normal operations over the coming months than ocean lines.

For starters, river ships in Europe are operated with crew members from local European countries, making the logistics of starting back up less complex. Ocean ships typically sail with a mix of crew members from a wide range of nations, making staffing difficult in a time of restricted travel.

Schreiner also noted that ocean cruise itineraries are more complex to operate, given they often involve visits to multiple countries, each with its own regulations.

While some European river cruises involve stops in more than one country, they generally take place entirely within the European Union, resulting in fewer headaches, he said.

Overall, Schreiner was upbeat about the coming months.

The development of vaccines that prevent COVID-19, he suggested, had changed everything.

“Four or five months ago … I really thought that [we would have to] write off 2021. We were prepared to have 2021 without [cruises],” Schreiner said. “But now things are looking positive again.”

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Featured image courtesy of AmaWaterways

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