With some U.S.-based and U.S.-flagged riverships already sailing, it looks likely that river lines in other parts of the world could follow in their wake very soon.
Earlier this year the whole season hung in the balance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising against cruise travel and the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) banning all non-essential overseas travel. However, with vaccine rollouts the hope of a return to river cruising -- mainly in Europe -- is now on the horizon as the European Union announces that vaccinated Americans are welcome to visit the bloc.
And the U.K. moves towards a "traffic light" system that will allow travel to certain countries -- yet to be announced -- from mid-May.
Lines are busy revising their schedules for the remainder of the year and putting health protocols in place so they can start sailing as soon as travel restrictions are lifted and borders reopen.
Cruise Critic takes a look at the rivers of the world to see where the river cruise industry is as 2021 moves towards the summer.
Despite the restrictions and lockdowns brought on by the second wave of the COVID-19 virus, river cruise in Europe are gearing up to begin sailing this summer -- even if they are initially only for local European Union and U.K. residents.
AmaWaterways plans to restart operations with charter sailings dedicated to the German market scheduled to resume in early June.
"My view is that it will start sometime soon, hopefully in the summer," said AmaWaterways president and co-founder Rudi Schreiner in an interview with Cruise Critic. "We are ready to start up. It all will depend on what are the requirements from the individual countries, travel restrictions, airline requirements and so on."
For Schreiner, and other lines, the biggest unknown is what travel restrictions will be put in place by local authorities by the time the season starts, and how severe they will be.
"I think there will always going to be country restrictions," he added. "The countries will not come back in full swing immediately. The full swing will start once borders really open up."
Luxury river cruise operator Uniworld Boutique River Cruises stated it plans to restart operations in mid-May, with sailings on Portugal's Douro, followed by cruises in the rest of Europe from June onwards; while Avalon Waterways is planning to resume a full program of sailings in July.
CroisiEurope plans to resume limited sailings from the end of May or early June -- dependant on the reopening of public venues such as bars, restaurants and hotels -- and be fully operational for most of its source markets by fall. Initially the line will focus on "one country" sailings, such as France and Portugal, followed by itineraries on the Rhine and Danube that pass through several countries.
John Fair, UK sales director, said: "That represents a lot of ships, but at the moment it's impossible to know how many as it all depends on how each country is managing COVID-19 as well as countries welcoming travelers.
"We are expecting that the first nationalities onboard will come from countries such as France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, but the U.K., Spain and Scandinavia won't be far behind with the U.S. traveling in the autumn."
A-Rosa River Cruises, which operated sailings for German passengers in 2019 for five months without a single case of COVID-19 onboard its ships, is also forecasting a summer restart.
"We really can't wait to get back to sailing just as soon as the borders open again and restrictions are lifted," said Lucia Rowe, Managing Director of A-Rosa U.K. & Ireland.
"All our feedback from guests last year was that they were so pleased to be back on the water and had a great time aboard."
The line is also hoping to operate Christmas markets and festive season cruises this year.
Tauck President Jennifer Tombaugh told Cruise Critic: " Of course the details are extremely vague right now, but we're gearing up for summer in Europe. I can tell you that our guests are bombarding us daily saying, "I'm vaccinated! Where can I go??"
All-new line TUI River Cruises, part of the U.K. tour operator TUI, is getting ready to sail for the first time this August on two of its three rebranded vessels which are adult-only.
Other lines are taking a more cautious approach and waiting for firm updates from respective governments. Paul Melinis, U.K. managing director of APT, said: "We are closely watching the U.K. government's roadmap for travel and cannot wait to welcome our guests back as soon as it is safe to do so. We hope to have a clearer sense of what will be possible once the industry has more clarification about destinations' classifications in the traffic light system."
In Russia the country's largest river cruise operator, Vodohod, resumed domestic sailings this April.
Head of marketing, Alla Mozharova, said: "While our international ships are paused, our eyes are set on the horizon and we hope that the current restrictions on trips abroad will be lifted around the world in July or August so we can welcome foreign guests on the ships."
Other river cruise lines, including Crystal, Emerald Cruises, Riviera, Scenic, Tauck and Viking have yet to announce firm restart dates. When sailings go begin various health protocols will be in operation on all lines including Avalon Waterways, Crystal, Uniworld and Viking requiring passengers to have received all doses of a COVID-19 vaccination. Lines such as CroisiEurope will send out pre-cruise health questionnaires and take the temperature of passengers on embarkation and each time they return to the ship.
American Cruise Lines was the first river line to resume operations in the U.S. in March with cruises on the Mississippi River and three of the line's four Mississippi vessels are operating this year. Cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers are scheduled to resume in May. Passengers have to present proof of vaccination or show a negative test result.
Charles B. Robertson, president and CEO of American Cruise Lines, said: "We are proud to have been the first line back on the water in the U.S. We have taken great care to resume cruises safely in each region by working closely with state and local partners. The popularity of domestic small ship cruising was stronger than ever before the pandemic and 2021 demand is already at new record levels."
The American Queen Steamboat Company also began resumed U.S. river sailings in March and from July a COVID-19 vaccination will be required by all passengers.
Other small-ship lines, like Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures, offer small-ship adventures on the Columbia and Snake rivers that run through Oregon and Washington State. The small vessels used on these waterways should be allowed to operate under current CDC guidance, though operations are still subject to local and State-level regulations and clearances.
Since U.S.-based river cruise vessels are smaller and, typically, U.S.-flagged, they are not subject to the Framework for Conditional Sailing put forth by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that has largely kept the big-ship cruise fleet out at anchor since March of 2020.
In Canada, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines confirmed its 64-passenger Canadian Empress is scheduled to resume operations in May, with sailings for Canadian citizens on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers.
The boutique operator managed to get in a handful of sailings last year before the end of the season in September, though who can sail in 2021 will largely be determined by guidance in place from the Province of Ontario.
Canadian Empress offers four-to-seven-night sailings from Kingston, Ontario and Quebec City.
The outlook for Asian river cruises is less rosy and it is highly unlikely cruises will resume any time soon.
In Myanmar, the recent military coup that led to the arrest of leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other government officials has ended any hopes of a river cruise season on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin. Pandaw, which pioneered river cruises in the former Burma, has indefinitely canceled all future cruises on its fleet of seven ships. Founder Paul Strachan said the decision had been made with "great sadness" and added: "I know the ships will be lovingly cared for and all our team there, like us, will be keen to get going again as soon as peace returns."
Elsewhere, the borders in Vietnam, Cambodia and China remain closed and India is battling against a virulent second wave of COVID-19.
Pandaw has cancelled all other cruises in Asia this year and plans to resume sailings in other countries -- including India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos -- in fall 2022. In Cambodia and Vietnam, home to the famous Mekong River, travel restrictions and lack of air service have thrown the remainder of the 2021 season -- which typically resumes in the late-spring months and runs into fall -- into question.
For river cruises on China's Yangtze, the association with the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus and the city of Wuhan has damaged perception of travel in that country, along with what has been seen as attempts by Beijing to control Hong Kong, which has historically benefited from a "one country, two systems" approach.
More promising is Egypt. River cruises on the Nile have struggled for a decade to rebound after the Arab Spring uprisings caused massive disruption to the country's tourism industry. In recent years, however, companies including AmaWaterways, Uniworld and Viking have committed to operating new vessels in the region, and itineraries are once again garnering interest thanks to historically low pricing.
"The country depends very much on the whole tourism part," says AmaWaterways' Schreiner. "Our ship, AmaDahlia, is planning to have a start up in September. And Egypt is looking very much forward to this. And one thing about Egypt, their government there is planning to vaccinate the hospitality people very soon, it seems."
For sailings on Africa's Chobe River, Schreiner notes most passengers have already moved spring bookings into the fall months. He says that it is "hard to tell" what will happen to the region, but notes that bookings for AmaWaterways' Chobe river cruise tour program remain strong. CroisiEurope also runs cruisetours that include time on the Chobe.
Australia's Murray River, by comparison, is a success story -- at least, for local Australians who live in Southern Australia.
The Murray Princess successfully restarted operations on the Murray River last year and continues to offer sailings for Australians who can travel unrestricted throughout the southern part of the country. While still off-limits for international travelers, the restart of the iconic paddlewheeler is good news, particularly given Australia's love-hate relationship with the cruise industry as of late.
No matter what happens in 2021, bookings for 2022 are going strong.
People are already planning ahead for a time when the pandemic eases its grip on the world. Huge events, such as the rescheduled Oberammergau Passion Play and the Floridae flower festival are also expected to drive interest in 2022 river cruises. Passengers can also look forward to a raft of new vessels.
Giles Hawke, CEO Avalon Waterways U.K., said: "Sales are looking amazing for 2022 as people appear to have real confidence that the situation will have resolved itself by then. They are booking ahead for travel as a definite reward for themselves for having to hold back over the last 18 months.
He said that the line was expecting a big surge of demand once borders are opened up and there is a real clarity on the situation around the traffic light system, foreign office advice and testings regimes for outbound travel and returning home.
Meanwhile AmaWaterways' Schreiner also notes that bookings for the line's 2022 river cruise departures in Europe have far exceeded expectations, and added: "Reservations for our 2022 season are the strongest we have ever seen. I think that '22 will be the gangbuster year."
New European ships on the horizon for the 2022 season include A-Rosa's dedicated four-deck family vessel incorporating battery power technology, Viva Cruises' pair of new vessels and a new ship for over-50s line Saga. Viking will also debut its long-awaited contemporary ship on the Mississippi.
Novel initiatives include Uniworld announcing the first-ever mystery cruise for June 2022. Hosted by the line's president and CEO, Ellen Bettridge, passengers will receive "clues" and a suggested packing list in the run-up to the European sailing.
Looking further ahead, AmaWaterways has unveiled two epic European itineraries -- the world's longest-ever river cruises -- for 2023. Response to the first 46-night sailing in June was so positive that the line has arranged a second 45-night cruise departing in April 2023.
Updated February 19, 2021