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European river cruise industry sees 2021 as 'transition year'

European river cruising may be in for another challenging year but River Cruise Europe members are optimistic about 2022
Many River Cruise Europe members expect a later start to the season and a 'transition year' similarly challenging as 2020.

At Thursday's virtual River Cruise Europe internal meeting, which drew more than 30 members, many forecast a delay but hope vessels can begin operating from mid-April to early May.

It was also voiced that 2021 is likely to again focus on Europeans, with travelers from overseas probably only returning in the second half.

Reduced fleets

Depending on their source markets, lines may not operate their full fleets this year and, in some cases, may sail only 50% of their vessels.

But the sector is not without optimism and expects to embark on a prosperous 2022 in a strengthened position.

High customer satisfaction

A key message was that COVID-19 protocols were widely accepted by passengers last year, with some stating they felt particularly safe and comfortable as a result of the measures, and they enjoyed travel in smaller groups. Customer satisfaction was generally high, and one operator said it had even increased over 2019.

Satisfaction largely depended on good communication and explanation of the protocols.

New customers

Several River Cruise Europe members gained new customers in significant numbers, including people who had been loyal ocean cruisers. This was particularly true for the important German source market.

Several members said overall demand had been high, with those products available on the market booking very well. 

Optimism for 2022

Despite their modest projections for the immediate future, River Cruise Europe members are optimistic about 2022 and beyond.

Many believe small-scale travel, cruising in small groups and sustainability will be major trends for the years ahead. So the river sector should be well-positioned.

A River Cruise Europe member also said the balance between tourism and the health and safety of local communities will become significantly more critical as a consequence of the pandemic.

River vessel operators expect it will be easier to achieve that balance than lines with large ocean ships.

Several operators have used the pandemic slowdown to focus on sustainability, in one case, for example, by preparing and implementing ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 management systems. In another example, a port installed a shore power facility.

Crewing challenges ahead

Several River Cruise Europe members see human resources challenges associated with the restart. Currently there's significant uncertainly since many crew members are young, often between 20 and 30. It will take a number of months before people in this age group have the opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in the European countries.

A major issue throughout the 2021 season will be the testing of crew, port staff, motor coach drivers and guides — first, with regard to the requirements defined by the authorities, and second, the practicalities of conducting regular testing.

A more medium- and long-term challenge will be the availability of good guides, crucial for the success of shore excursions. As a result of the 2020 slowdown, many local guides had to get another job to make ends meet; often, they're self-employed and government support varies from country to country.

It will be a task to keep good guides active and to recruit new talent after the pandemic. 

Next meeting to address COVID-19 protocols

River Cruise Europe members discussed the importance of exchanging information about COVID-19 protocols and said coordinated work on health measures is critical for a successful restart. As a result, a virtual meeting is planned in March to highlight examples of best practices.

A meeting on environmental and social sustainability is in the pipeline.

Chair Monic van der Heyden said exchanging information is a core objective of River Cruise Europe, established in 2019 as a self-supporting offshoot of Cruise Europe.

'We are very proud that our members represent the entire river cruise community as we believe that this is an important condition for setting up a valuable community,' she added.

Van der Heyden also announced membership fees for last year will apply to 2021, which means members will not be charged a fee this year.