River cruising was gaining popularity when COVID-19 hit. Is the smaller-ship experience even more appealing now?

River cruising has seen a spike in interest over the last few years, but is ocean cruising’s counterpart seeing a new rise in interest thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic? Maybe.

Michelle Fee, CEO of travel agency Cruise Planners, told USA TODAY that her company has seen “incredible demand” for river cruising both internationally and domestically.

“River cruise purchases have nearly doubled since same time last year, and they represent 21% of all Cruise Planners departures for 2022,” Fee said, cautioning that it’s hard to compare bookings between 2020 and 2021 – large ocean cruise ships haven’t sailed in U.S. waters since last March

Because of their limited capacity, small river cruise ships are exempt from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s “Framework for Conditional Sailing,” which applies to ships carrying 250 people or more that have not been able to resume sailing in U.S. waters.

According to Cruise Critic, river cruise ships carry, on average, between 106 and 150 passengers.

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Andy Harmer, of industry group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), told USA TODAY that it may be “too early to tell” whether COVID-19 has been drawing more travelers to explore the idea of river cruising. Harmer is senior vice president of membership and also leads the river cruise affiliate program for CLIA.

River cruising has been gaining popularity since before the pandemic started, and the current rising interest may be a continuation of what was already happening.

But Harmer said he thinks “certainly the river cruise operators recognize that there will be some people that will want to be on a ship that is smaller, for example, or that is right in the heart of the city.”

Harmer also believes that new interest in river cruising is and has been coming from travelers that typically partake in other forms of vacations, such as bus tours.

Why might river cruising be more appealing during a pandemic?

River cruising is an inherently different experience than ocean cruising – ships are smaller, they operate nearer to land and are tailored to a more private experience.

Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways, a river cruise company that operates in Egypt, Southern Africa, Southeast Asia and Europe, said the industry has proven river cruises can be conducted safely. AmaWaterways hosted more than 1,500 passengers on cruisesover the summer – including a four-month cruise – without a single COVID-19 case on board, Schreiner said.

When AmaWaterways resumed operations during the pandemic, cruises had a maximum of 100 passengers. During the sailings, each passenger was required to fill out a health questionnaire before boarding, and passengers and crew were subject to daily temperature checks. Luggage was sanitized before being delivered to state rooms, and crew members were required to wear face coverings at all times. Passengers were also required to wear masks while moving about the ship.

On small-group excursions, the cruise line used personal, portable Quietvox commentary systems so that guests could hear their guides while social distancing outdoors on hiking and biking tours.

On average, AmaWaterways ships hold around 150 guests and boast “spacious sundecks” and open-air balconies, making for what Schreiner calls a “more intimate” experience. The line’s ships dock daily in city centers and towns situated along rivers.

Given their constant proximity to land, travelers on board may have more access to a city’s medical facilities.

“I think a lot of (the demand) has to do with smaller ships, less people – people feeling like, no matter what, they’re close to a port where they could step off, if something happens … they immediately will be taken somewhere for treatment if needed,” Fee said.

Susan Schultz, vice president of trade relations for American Cruise Lines, said that American Cruise Lines’ vessels afford 450 square feet of space per passenger. And the amount of space per passenger will increase at limited capacity. The line hopes to sail sometime in the spring at 75% capacity.

“(We sail with) under 200 guests,” she said. You’re not with 3,000 or 4,000 people; it’s a totally different experience.”

American Cruise Lines operates 13 vessels, including eight riverboats and five small coastal ships.

River cruises are also more “nimble” and are able to get ships up and running more quickly than larger, ocean-going lines, Fee explained.

“Whatever protocols may be required in the future, river cruise ships provide a more controlled environment, without compromising the relaxed vacation experience,” Schreiner said.

River cruise line executives say demand is high

Schreiner said that AmaWaterways has seen a rise in interest in river cruises over the past several years but that since the pandemic, interest has hit a new high.

“The river cruise segment has seen strong year-over-year growth in the last decade, but with international travel on hold since March 2020, the reservations for our 2022 sailing season are stronger than we would normally see this far in advance,” Schreiner told USA TODAY in a statement. Reservations are up 40% versus this time last year.

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Part of the demand, Schreiner said, comes from guests having to reschedule their 2020 cruises.

But those aren’t the only customers AmaWaterways is seeing booking. Cruisers who are “more accustomed” to ocean-going ships are now booking river cruises for the first time.

“The pandemic has shifted focus to health and safety concerns with travelers looking for ways of spending more time in the open air away from large crowds,” Schreiner said.

American Cruise Lines is seeing a rise in interest too, but Schultz told USA TODAY the rise is a continuation of what it had been seeing.

“We are seeing a rise in sales right now and in interest in river cruising,” Schultz said. “For the past five years, we’ve seen a major increase in interest for river cruising.”

The age group that has traditionally sailed with American Cruise Lines includes cruisers over 60, according to Schultz, who noted those in the older age group receiving a COVID-19 vaccine may feel ready to get back on board.

‘Pent-up demand’ for ocean cruising

While many ocean-going ships remain docked as cruise lines work with the CDC on returning to cruising, demand has remained high for cruise bookings on ocean-going ships, too.

Multiple major cruise companies, including Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, said farther-out booking trends have proven that cruisers are still interested in sailing – particularly in the second half of 2021 or in the beginning of 2022.

And the majority of cruisers are ready to get back on ocean-going ships, according to data shared by Bari Golin-Blaugrund, vice president of strategic communications for CLIA.

“Two out of three cruisers believe it will be safe to cruise within a year, and 58% of international vacationers, who have never cruised, say they are likely to cruise in the next few years,” Golin-Blaugrund said, noting 74% said they would cruise in the “next few years.”

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