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Late spring but, more likely, summer for Americans to travel Europe's rivers

'We are ready to cruise whenever people can cruise,' AmaWaterways' Rudi Schreiner said
Rudi Schreiner expects European river cruising to resume in the spring for Europeans and in late spring 'but, more realistically, the summer' for North Americans.

'We are ready to cruise whenever people can cruise,' the AmaWaterways president/co-owner said Monday in a one-to-one interview.

Given the COVID-19 surge and uncertainty surrounding vaccine distribution, bookings for spring have tailed off recently and booked travelers have rescheduled for later in the year, Schreiner told Seatrade Cruise News.

Fall/winter strength

However, bookings for summer and fall, and especially fall and winter 2021, are 'strong,' while 2022 is 'very strong,' Schreiner said. Plus, AmaWaterways is already filling charters and group sailings in 2023.

It's too early to say whether the vaccine approval is fueling sales. That may take a week or two to know. Meanwhile, the booking situation is positive, calls are coming in and inquiries are increasing.

For Ama, 45% of passengers on canceled sailings have opted for a future cruise credit, while 55% requested refunds. The majority — 80% to 85% — of those choosing FCCs have applied them to a new sailing though travelers can change their booking without penalty, and many have done so.

Last April/May, many rebooked for the coming spring, but now they're moving to September or later.

'My gut feeling is we will start late spring cruising, possibly with a few ships, possibly with Europeans and hopefully with a few Americans,' Schreiner said. 'But I still think summer will be the time when it can really start. By March/April, people will have a very good idea of how safe it will be to go in the summer.' If the vaccine distribution goes well, fall/winter will be 'pretty much as usual.'

Sparked by Qantas becoming the first airline to state proof of a COVID vaccination will be required to fly, other airlines are likely to follow suit and Schreiner thinks some countries could make it a requirement for entry, just as some African countries, for example, require a yellow fever vaccination. He believes travel policies in Europe will continue to be set at the national level, not in EU groupings as when the Continent first reopened. So there may be a patchwork of regulations.

Open travel not likely until 2022

'I don't believe there will be open travel, maybe not until 2022,' Schreiner said. 'COVID will be around in 2021.'

Schreiner doesn't think AmaWaterways would mandate vaccination for boarding, but the line will comply with whatever national requirements are in place.

'Completely new rules will come out,' he predicted.

'If there are no strict rules, we will apply the strict rules on board,' he added. 'You can't let your guard down.'

This may mean proof of a negative COVID test, and Ama will continue the practices it set when becoming the first (and only) US-based river cruise line to sail in Europe during 2020, with one vessel, for the German-speaking market.

Protocols included pre-boarding health questionnaires, COVID tests for crew, daily temperature checks for passengers and crew, masks, no self-service food or beverages, plexiglass dividers in lounges to ensure distancing, a designated shipboard public health officer and reduced capacity.

COVID-free in 2020

On charter by a German tour operator, AmaKristina sailed from July to November, when Germany shut down domestic travel/hotel operations, ending river voyages. Ama had no reported COVID cases.

The line didn't require travelers to get COVID tests this year because the virus was so well controlled in Germany for most of the time the cruises were offered.

The original plan was to limit occupancy to 50% however the average passenger count per voyage over the four months was around 60 on a 170-passenger ship. Eighty percent of Ama's accommodations have balconies, and the lower-level staterooms (with just windows) were not offered for sale.

Each stateroom has its own fan coil ventilation system, so air isn't recirculated. And in the public rooms, there's no air conditioning blower but rather an 'air fog' system where the cold air comes out between openings in the ceiling panels, reducing the risk of blowing the virus around.

Profiting from experience

The season was 'not a money-maker,' Schreiner said. 'It was an excellent learning experience.'

Vaccine distribution the key

2021 travel will depend on how fast vaccines are distributed and how widely they're accepted. Schreiner noted some people won't get vaccinated and others will wait to see about reactions to the vaccine.

He doesn't believe the type of vaccination booklets that Americans used to tuck into their passports years ago will be adequate proof. As with COVID tests, it's too easy to falsify paper documents, so Schreiner thinks some type of passport-linked electronic verification will be needed.

The Ama chief estimated 70 to 80 river vessels operated in Europe this year, including those of Phoenix Reisen, Nikko Tours, Lüftner Cruises, Douro Azul and Scylla, among others.

'The European market was fairly strong,' Schreiner said. Some COVID cases were reported, but generally the news was positive.


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