As the distinctive red-and-white riverboat NickoVision sets sail today, it is not only carrying 110 excited passengers but also the hopes of the entire cruise industry.
What would normally be an inauspicious journey from Passau to Düsseldorf marks the first ‘green shoot’ of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down holidays for millions of cruisers worldwide.
But as guests board the two-year-old ship in Germany this afternoon after filling in a health form and having their temperature checked, they will notice a few differences. There will be half the normal number of people on the 13-day voyage along the Danube and Rhine, to help maintain social distancing. Everyone will have to wear face masks, surfaces will be regularly disinfected and meals and drinks will be brought directly to the table.
Unusually for a river vessel, there will also be a doctor on board. Lifts, public toilets and services such as massages and hairdressing will be closed. Any suspected coronavirus cases that do arise will be quarantined in an isolation cabin until they can leave the ship to be properly checked.
Arno Reitsma, CEO of shipping company Scylla, which owns the boat on charter to Stuttgart-based Nicko Travel, told The Telegraph: “We have been working for months to adapt our operations to the ‘new normality’. We’re delighted today to see those efforts paying off. Guests are boarding again and are ready to start rediscovering the wonderful places along the European waterways.”
NickoVision is the first of 34 river ships that Swiss-based operator Scylla will be reintroducing in the next few weeks, beginning with cruises totally within Germany as the country starts lifting restrictions, with coronavirus cases now below 500 a day.
Rupert Thomson, managing director of Light Blue Travel, which sells Nicko cruises in the UK, said: "European river journeys will be the perfect way for British travellers to slowly get back to cruising. The Nicko boats will have reduced capacity and stringent health and safety measures on board and there are also options for non-fly travel to the continent, either self-drive or rail, so I think this will be a USP."
Another German brand, A-Rosa, is planning to restart sailings on the Douro in Portugal on June 17, followed by the Rhine on June 19 and Danube on June 20. Itineraries on the Seine and Rhône in France are expected to resume in early July.
Managing director Jörg Eichler said: “River cruises are an ideal and flexible form of travel for a safe relaxing holiday in the ‘new normal’. The ships are comparatively small and have relatively few guests on board, so hygiene rules can be implemented efficiently.”
As for ocean cruises, Norwegian line Hurtigruten is due to begin operations on June 16 with its 550-passenger ship Finnmarken leaving Bergen on a round trip to Kirkenes, followed on the same route over the next eight days by three other ships. It hopes to restart Arctic expedition cruises in the summer.
Luxury line SeaDream has also announced plans to begin sailing in Norway on June 20 with a voyage from Bergen to Oslo, followed by seven and 12-day itineraries along the coast to explore the Lofoten Fjords and sail as far north as Tromsø in the Arctic Circle.
“Our yachts offer a naturally healthy, outdoor environment where space, fresh air and healthy food have always been a central component,” said SeaDream’s executive vice president Andreas Brynestad.
In the US, American Cruise Lines is gearing up to come back on June 20 on the Columbia and Snake rivers and on June 28 on the Mississippi.
With Canada extending its ban on large cruise ships until the end of October, the line also hopes to be one of the few serving Alaska this year, possibly as soon as late June.
As for the first Mediterranean cruises, hopes have been pinned on Greece, a country that has come through the coronavirus crisis with fewer than 3,000 cases and 200 deaths. Most of its islands have seen no reported cases at all.
From June 15, international tourists will be able to visit – and, although the UK was not on the initial permitted list of 29 countries, it seems British visitors will be allowed, subject to seven days of quarantine if they test negative for Covid-19 and 14 days if positive.
Greek line Celestyal was hoping to begin sailing again on June 29 but this has been put back to July 30. Small-ship company Variety Cruises is aiming to nudge in first, on July 24, with a seven-night voyage on 49-guest yacht Galileo.
French company Ponant is said to be working on a range of cruises ‘as soon as possible’ from the mainland to Corsica and back, along the Atlantic coast or even within the Kimberley in Australia – which has banned cruise ships arriving from foreign ports until mid-September – but it has made no official announcement.
As for the big cruise players, Royal Caribbean says it expects to resume services in Asia and Europe before the US – specifically in China, the country where coronavirus cases were first detected – but no further details have yet been released.
In the States itself, Royal and its major competitors Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line have suspended operations until at least August.
For cruisers eager to make a transatlantic crossing, there is the option of hitching a lift on a passenger-carrying cargo ship. Specialist agents The Cruise People are selling cabins on the containership Brussels sailing on June 16 from Rotterdam to Miami.
As of now, Britons who want to fly abroad are waiting to see if the government can be persuaded against bringing in a directive on June 8 requiring all returning travellers to self-isolate for 14 days. Airline chiefs are pressing for “air bridges” with countries such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal – but they may have to wait until the rules are reconsidered on June 29.
What about cruising within the UK? P&O Cruises and Cunard will not be restarting services before July 31. However, there’s a glimmer of hope that some of the fleet of independent Scottish boats might be able to sail before then.
Some of the vessels – all carrying a dozen people or fewer – could be back on the water by mid-July. One of the ways they might be able to combat the problem of social distancing in such a small space is by booking whole voyages to family groups.
One ray of optimism comes from Keith Punler of the Royal Scottish Shipping Line, which operates a 12-passenger superyacht, Spirit of Fortitude.
“We believe that small-ship cruising will become even more popular,” he told Telegraph Travel.
“The weather has been fantastic and let's hope that the sun shines on us for the rest of the season.”