Viking last week launched eight new ships in simultaneous ceremonies across two countries. And 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 for the CLIA RiverView Conference.

It is the first in-person gathering for cruising’s trade body since 2019 and there’s much to discuss. Alongside the comeback of river cruising and health and safety protocols, the war in Ukraine has set another hurdle.

Big spenders

“Revenge travel is real,” said 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 has announced another bucket list cruise, a 43-day itinerary for January 2023 taking in the Nile, the Ganges and the Mekong. 

The appetite for luxury seems insatiable. 

“We launched a mystery cruise for June this year,” said Bettridge. “It sold out in four hours.”

And is Australia coming back? 

“Australia was our number two market after the US,” said Bettridge. “Now that’s the UK for 2022 – but Australia is going crazy for 2023; better than pre-pandemic.”

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 1500 kilometres from Budapest, the war is affecting decisions to cruise. 

Katie Elson, head of marketing for APT, said: “British guests are concerned about the refugee situation. Australians seem more concerned about personal safety.”

Longer itineraries

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,” said APT’s 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.

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 program throughout, including the land programs. 

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.

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,” said one wag. In reality, masks do seem to be on the way out, although the rules are still confusing. 

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.

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