With 10 riverboats moored along the banks of the Danube and 200 travel agents and cruise line executives in town, the mood in Budapest is upbeat.
The CLIA RiverView Conference is the first in-person gathering for cruising’s trade body since 2019 and there’s much to discuss. The comeback of river cruising, for one. The war in Ukraine is another. Health, safety and covid continues to be a talking point, too.
Here are the topics of the moment.
One thing’s for sure: river cruising, in Europe, at least, is well and truly back. “Revenge travel is real,” says Ellen Bettridge, president and CEO of luxury line Uniworld. “People have been at home for two years. They’re ready to go.
“We put out a 46-day Rivers of the World cruise. It sold out immediately. Australians went crazy for it; in fact, Americans and Australians bought the whole cruise. We already have a waiting list for 2024.”
Uniworld today announced another bucket list cruise, a 43-day itinerary for January 2023 taking in the Nile, the Ganges and the Mekong. British cruisers get first crack at it, after which it will be put on sale for international guests.
The appetite for luxury seems insatiable. “We launched a mystery cruise for June this year,” says Ms Bettridge. “It sold out in four hours and they don’t even know where they’re going. We’ve completely rethought what happens on and off the ship and the price is 40 percent higher than a normal cruise.”
And is Australia coming back? “Australia was our number two market after the US,” Ms Bettridge says. “Now that’s the UK for 2022 – but Australia is going crazy for 2023; better than pre-pandemic.”
Australians, though, are still not planning travel at anything like previous levels, according to the cruise lines in at the conference, which include APT, Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, Scenic and Emerald Cruises.
The 2022 season is likely to offer bargains to European late bookers who take up the slack left by Australians who would normally be sailing. 2023 is busy but not full – and most lines say they are putting 2024 on sale early to cash in on the positive mood.
War in Ukraine
While the area of conflict is some 1,500 km from Budapest, the war is affecting decisions to cruise.
Katie Elson, head of marketing for APT, says: “British guests are concerned about the refugee situation. Australians seem more concerned about personal safety.”
Ellen Bettridge adds: “We had a US group who were afraid to come to Budapest; they thought there are going to be refugees everywhere. I’ve convinced them otherwise. No cruise line is going to take its customers into harm’s way.”
The tourist board here in Hungary points out that some passengers feel guilty about visiting places that are taking in traumatised refugees. But, they say, if we don’t support their economies with tourism, they can’t support the refugees.
Long and complex itineraries are shaping up to be big as river fans splurge after two travel-deprived years.
“Our first Australian guests arrive in Europe on April 22,” says APT’s Ms Elson. “Australians are certainly interested in back-to-backs, longer cruises and pre- and post-cruise programmes. A lot are booking land combined with a cruise in Croatia on our new Lady Eleganza, too.” APT’s brand new Travelmarvel Vega arrives in Budapest tomorrow, embarking its very first passengers in the afternoon.
Alex L. Pinelo, vice president, sales for AmaWaterways agrees that longer journeys are the way to go. “We put together at 46-night European cruise,” he says. “It sold out straight away. Now we have two more. We want to do the same for France, where you can do back-to-back cruises for 28 days. All our French cruises are combinable.”
The Ukraine situation has, Mr Pinelo says, slowed down bookings a little for the first half of 2022 but destinations a long way from eastern Europe are filling up. “The Douro is 90 percent sold for this summer,” he says. “The Christmas markets season this year is the biggest in the history of the company.”
Kristin Karst, co-founder and executive vice president of AmaWaterways, adds: “For a lot of our guests, it’s a long flight to go to Europe. Previously, people would have loved a seven-night cruise but now they want back-to-back. Because they’ve been working from home during the pandemic, they can keep that hybrid style while they’re travelling. People have become much more flexible. They’ve saved money during the pandemic – and we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow.”
Creative land programs
Another aspect of river cruising that’s changing is the greater variety on offer. Uniworld has added train travel as a pre- and post-cruise option, using the ultra-luxurious Golden Eagle line across the Alps to Venice and in Transylvania. Jerusalem, Lugano and Milan have all been added as extensions to Nile and Venice lagoon cruises respectively.
AmaWaterways has added the historic Polish city of Krakow as an extension to its Danube cruises. A selling point is the continuity of having the same cruise director hosting the programme throughout, including the land programmes.
Emerald Cruises has added a new 11-night Danube cruise for 2023, from Passau to Belgrade, as well as offering city stay extensions to Munich, for Oktoberfest, Seville and Copenhagen.
Avalon Waterways continues to enhance its Active & Discovery cruises with some genuinely creative included excursions. “In the Ardèche, on our Rhône cruises, we hike to the mouth of a cave,” says managing director Pam Hoffee. “We kit everybody out in caving gear and head down into the cave, where there’s a winemaker waiting. He ages his wine in the cave. We turn off our headlamps and taste the wine as it’s meant to be tasted, with no other sensory distractions.”
New destinations are coming online, too. AmaWaterways will offer cruises in Colombia in 2024. Uniworld has moved into the Peruvian Amazon in partnership with Aqua Expeditions, while Avalon Waterways offers Peru combined with the Galapagos. Asia, most lines agree, will be well and truly back by October this year, having just started to open up.
Masks are on the way out
What about health and safety protocols, with different countries in the world each taking a different attitude to covid? “Travel agents have become epidemiologists and experts in form-filling,” says one wag. In reality, masks do seem to be on the way out, although the rules are still confusing. You could, in theory, sail on the same river from a country that doesn’t require masks to one that does. Most of the lines here in Budapest require masks to be worn only when walking around the ship, with policies reviewed on a rolling basis.
Buffets, too, are coming back, while social distancing rules are being relaxed; on most river lines, for example, you no longer have to sit with the same people for every meal.
While uncertainties lie ahead in Europe, all the river cruise operators here say there’s a new sense of celebration in the air. “There’s more dancing on board every night than I have ever seen,” says AmaWaterways’ Ms Karst. “People are so hungry to be out again, to socialise, eat, drink and have a good time.”