A major drought in Europe—reportedly the worst in at least 500 years—is causing snarls in commerce this summer, as some major rivers have become too shallow to accommodate ships’ passing. The transport of goods and commodities along the continent’s interior waterways is being held up, but this effect of climate change is also increasingly causing headaches for the river cruise sector.
Portions of the Rhine and the Danube Rivers, both of which are popular for river cruising, are unnavigable, as their beds have partially dried up. With these two major channels experiencing historically low water levels, even vessels that are able to sail through have had to reduce their load capacities. Last week’s bout of rainfall in Germany has provided some relief, but it’s likely to be temporary.
According to the European Drought Observatory, almost 65 percent of the E.U. is presently under drought warnings and researchers say that droughts stand to occur more frequently in the future, as large storms deliver heavy rainfall and flooding to other areas of the globe.
As a result, plenty of guests trying to sail on their dream European river cruises in recent months have had to deal with unwelcome and annoying itinerary alterations, including missing their planned excursions and spending part of the trip sitting on tour buses instead of taking in leisurely views from onboard their vessels.
With part of river cruising’s appeal being that guests get to keep the same accommodations throughout their vacation, enjoying gourmet meals, onboard activities and other enrichment along the way, some customers are understandably quite upset. Cruise lines do, however, typically attempt to compensate affected passengers by providing them with a future cruise credit equal to a percentage of the cost of their current sailing, though that’s unlikely to satisfy everyone.
River cruising today is a multibillion-dollar industry that’s been rising in popularity, ranking third among Virtuoso’s top travel trends for pre-pandemic 2019—beating out even the luxury cruise segment. According to The New York Times (NYT), 1.6 million travelers traversed Europe’s waterways in 2018—almost double the number of river cruisers recorded in 2013. Many of those passengers have historically over the age of 55 and, according to the trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the greatest portion hail from North America.
President and co-owner of AmaWaterways, Rudi Schreiner, told NYT that, when the Lower Rhine’s water levels drop too low, guests are taken by bus on an excursion in a nearby town. Then, they’re transported downriver to a spot with higher water levels to meet their ship and continue their cruise.
Shreiner said his company is investigating new technologies to minimize its ships’ drafts so they can sail through shallower waters. “I don’t see any death of river cruising,” he remarked. “I see adjustments.”
Last week, Viking noted in a statement, “We are currently able to sail the vast majority of our river itineraries without interruptions, however, water levels on the lower Danube River—near Bulgaria—remain unusually low, and our nautical team is continually monitoring the situation. To varying degrees, these low water levels will affect select itineraries. Guests and their Travel Advisors will continue to be notified directly by Viking Customer Relations if we think that their itinerary might be impacted.”
When it comes to dealing with such disruptions, Viking has some distinct advantages. The line owns and operates its ships, and also maintains a dedicated nautical team that monitors water levels to forecast any upcoming problems. When conditions call for it, Viking strategically launches a pair of sister ships, both in service of the same itinerary, but sailing in opposite directions. At the point along the route where water levels become prohibitive, guests and their luggage are seamlessly transferred to the next ship, which stands ready to continue their journey on the other side.
Ellen Bettridge, president and chief executive of Uniworld, told NYT that her company arrived at a different solution to the challenges of changing weather patterns in Europe. Last year, the line expanded into luxury train travel, introducing itineraries that combine river cruising with land-based portions.
“While we cannot predict future weather changes, we are preparing for it,” she said in a statement. “Our longstanding history and unparalleled relationships within the travel industry have allowed us to be flexible in creating alternate itineraries.”
Bettridge also affirmed that most of Uniworld’s voyages remain unaffected by water-level issues, but that the company has been compelled to cancel seven percent of its cruises.
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