Disruptions to river cruising in Europe caused by massive flooding in Central Europe pose a major test to the fast-growth cruise niche – and a potential headache for travel agents and their clients.
Floods in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic have led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of Europeans as rising rivers have threatened communities. A state of emergency has been declared in the Czech Republic, where at least five have been killed in the worst flooding since 2002.
Viking River Cruises has been hard hit, having to cancel 10 departures and alter eight itineraries so far.
“The river cruise industry, as we know it today, is relatively new,” said Kier Matthews, CTIE, vice president of sales at EuropeExpress. “This is their first major catastrophe.”
Travel agents said the unprecedented cancellations will put a damper on an extremely strong year.
“Currently we have about 15 bookings which have been cancelled through the next 10 days,” said Mike Davies, owner of RiverDiscounts.com. “Although the forecasts look optimistic, there’s still a lot of flooding.
“The last time this happened was in the year 1500,” said Davies, referring to the historically high water levels.
Davies credited Viking with doing the best job of shuttling around displaced cruisers.
A statement from Viking suggested that the size of its fleet has worked in its favor. “In many instances, due to having the largest fleet in river cruising combined with our in-house nautical and operations team in Switzerland, we are able to continue operating our itineraries through careful planning and switching of sister ships,” Viking said.
“In every decision we make, the safety of our guests and crew remains our top priority,” the river cruise line said.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has cancelled four sailings so far. Avalon Waterways and AMAWaterways have yet to cancel any cruises, but have tweaked itineraries.
The unknown duration of flooding on the Danube and Main rivers poses a challenge to agents with clients booked throughout the summer. In some ways, river cruise agents may end up victims of their own success.
“We don’t have the capability to put people elsewhere because it has been a very successful year,” said Davies. “These sailings were booked a long time ago. Most of those who we can book on later dates don’t want to cruise in the cold weather.”
Fluctuating water levels are always a concern for river cruises, but the severity of recent flooding puts an emphasis on agent communication.
“Usually a diligent travel advisor is going to tell their clients that if the rivers get too high or low, their cruise may be cancelled,” said Trish Gastineau, CTC, MCC, an independent agent and river cruise specialist in Montgomery, Ala. “I do the same thing when I’ve got clients going to the Caribbean in hurricane season.”
Agents should consider encouraging their clients to shift their vacations to another region of Europe, instead of cancelling or rebooking costly air travel, according to Matthews.
“We are seeing that clients are still going to Europe, since they already booked air and essential land components,” said Matthews. “We’re seeing a ton of last-minute bookings. Agents are calling and saying their clients want to shift from river cruising to land vacations or Mediterranean cruises.”
Matthews thinks savvy agents will be proactive and rebook their clients.
But Davies, as a river cruise specialist, wasn’t optimistic.
“I can’t see most of the bookings which are being lost being rebooked later,” said Davies. “The refunds are in cash and credit card refunds, not credits for further cruises. It would be over-optimistic to ask people to rebook later this year.”