In July, amid increasing confusion created by changing advice from the Foreign Office, it was established that British holidaymakers could, in theory, take a river cruise – while ocean cruises remained off the cards. The reality – as we’ve often found with the travel corridors list, which is slowly dwindling down until nothing remains – is that it was rarely possible, with government advice, both home and abroad, changing frequently and cruise lines also imposing their own restrictions.
When a series of smaller, ocean-going lines returned to the waters around the same time and cases followed (although in very small numbers), there was some murmuring to be heard that these lines had gone back too early and risked impacting confidence in the wider industry. Since these early setbacks, however, the lines and other have run successful itineraries, with two MSC Cruises ships – by far the largest to date – returning to much fanfare, and Quantum of the Seas set to set sail for the Singaporean market soon.
Yet few people were talking about what was happening on the rivers, as inland cruises were given the green light by French and German governments, and various cruises lines – AmaWaterways, CroisiEurope and Nicko Cruises among them – quietly welcomed guests back on board. At the time, Clia UK & Ireland director Andy Harmer spoke of a “gradual, phased-in approach to resumption of cruise operations across Europe, initially domestic and regional”.
“We were one of the first river cruise lines to resume sailing back in June 2020 and, for over four months now, we’ve successfully been sailing some of Europe’s most beautiful rivers,” says Lucia Rowe, managing director at A-Rosa River Cruises UK & Ireland. “We were in a slightly different position to many river cruise lines, as we were one of a handful who had briefly started the 2020 season in early March when Covid-19 [emerged]. These select few lines understood the importance of preparing for what was ahead and adopted a new set of safety and hygiene protocols very early in the year. When the crisis fully hit, and once all guests and crew were safely back in their home destinations, river cruise lines had time to develop these enhanced protocols even further and be at the forefront for when they could restart.”
Safety measures have varied line to line, but not wildly. A-Rosa, which operates ships which are larger than your average river ship, with the likes of A-Rosa Donna carrying up to 206 guests, introduced social distancing protocols for the entire ship; enhanced cleaning procedures; the wearing of mouth and nose coverings in some public spaces; pre-screening and temperature checks prior to embarkation; meals served at tables at set times, and reduced capacity on excursions. With river cruises, the interiors of ships may vary greatly from line to line, but the shells of the vessels are often very similar, or many cases the same – meaning the lines who are yet to return have already seen how river cruise in the age of Covid-19 will work. It would be crass to call these June and July sailings dress rehearsals, but it’s true that the early returners have done a lot of the hard work for other lines.
One of these early returners was Viva Cruises, which offers a variety of cruises along Europe’s great rivers including the Danube, Elbe, Rhine and Rhône. The Düsseldorf-based cruise line was only founded in 2018, but is owned by the family behind river cruise operator Scylla AG, which runs a fleet of river ships for various European charter clients, including Nicko Cruises, Tauck and Riviera Travel – allowing us to see how the hardware allows social distancing and other protocols to work.
“While the situation in Europe continues to evolve, having a ship cruise the Rhine over the past three months has allowed us to play an industry-leading role in the safe adaptation of health and safety protocols and to show our travel partners and guests that it is possible to implement these precautions without diminishing the wonderful river cruise experience,” says Rudi Schreiner, co-founder of AmaWaterways, which has been operating one ship for the German market. He says that guests understand that important health and safety protocols are for the protection of everyone and have been co-operative and respectful. “Due to Covid-19, the traditional buffet concept for breakfast and lunch has been replaced on our ship by an enhanced menu selection and full table service. The transition away from a buffet set-up has been so successful that we are already incorporating this higher level of personalised service into new restaurant design concepts for our future ships. Our crew are so proud to have been selected to sail this special charter programme and, despite face coverings, they have discovered new ways to establish the warm connection with our guests. We have no doubt that these protocols and procedures, that create layers of protection and reassurance, will work just as smoothly for our English-speaking guests as they have for guests coming from the German-speaking markets.”
Another line, CroisiEurope, which has made a name for itself by pioneering less-traversed rivers, introduced pre-travel health questionnaires; regular temperature checks for guests and crew; daily ship deep cleaning; social distancing and waiter service meal sittings on its ships. Like A-Rosa, awareness of the line has grown in the UK in recent years – and it will be welcoming a number of Brits on board once travel advice allows.
One interesting piece of information revealed by Rowe is the number of ocean guests who have come across to river – suggesting an appetite to get back out on the water regardless of where that is. “Since we restarted sailing we’ve seen more ocean cruisers giving river a try. Our recent customer surveys have shown that around 70 per cent of our guests on board have some kind of ocean experience,” she says. “Traditionally there was not much cross over between ocean and river customers as it was felt that the offering was very different. However, while we are wholeheartedly hoping that ocean cruising is able to make a full return soon, it is encouraging to see that those who want to get back on the water right now are giving river a try.”