Popularity can be a gift but, as last night’s Budapest boat tragedy makes abundantly clear, it can also be a nightmare of the highest order when it comes to tourism.
Rescue divers are currently making a last-ditch attempt to locate survivors after the 89ft Hableany (“Mermaid”), a small sightseeing boat carrying 33 South Korean tourists and two Hungarian crew members, sank in seven seconds following a collision with the 442ft Viking river ship Sigyn during a rainstorm near the Margit bridge on the Danube – leaving at least seven people dead and a further 21 missing for whom hope is fast fading.
The dead – thought to be six women and one man aged between 31 and 66 – and missing passengers were not wearing life jackets, officials said.
The emergency rescue operation has been hindered by a high-water level on the Danube following days of heavy rain in Central Europe and experts fear that the fast current could take bodies miles downriver. One survivor was found near Budapest’s Petofi bridge, approximately a mile and a half from the site of the crash, and consequently the search downstream has been extended all the way into neighbouring Serbia.
Following the crash, concerns have been raised that the catastrophe was an "accident waiting to happen", as the river has become congested with tourists boats competing for space to see the Hungarian capital lit up at night.
Specialist cruise writer Sara Macefield adds: “As one of the most popular cities on the Danube, Budapest is a key embarkation/disembarkation point for many river cruise lines and its stunning cityscape makes it arguably the most popular spot for night-time cruising as it is so beautifully illuminated. As a result, it has become increasingly busy too.”
But it’s not just the Danube that has become crowded. “The river cruise industry is currently going through a massive boom [a record 210,400 Brits took a river cruise in 2017] and the rising congestion on the rivers reflects this,” Macefield told Telegraph Travel.
To cope with the surge of interest in river cruising, operators can’t build ships fast enough. Before the year is out Viking River Cruises will have launched seven ships – six Viking Longships featuring two Explorer Suites, seven two-room Veranda Suites, 39 Veranda Staterooms and 22 French Balcony Staterooms – plus a seventh vessel custom-designed for cruising Portugal’s Douro river.
AmaWaterways isn’t slowing down either and is responsible for three ships this year: the 102-passenger AmaDouro which began plying the Douro in April, the much-anticipated 196-passenger, 72 feet wide (almost twice the width of AmaWaterways' existing river cruise ships) AmaMagna along the Danube, and the 164-passenger AmaMora which will make its debut in July on the Rhine.
Subsequently, says Macefield: “Docking points are becoming ever more crowded with more riverboats looking to moor up. You can get two, three or more at a time – so you can find your view blocked as another boat moors up alongside and when you disembark, you may have to walk through other boats moored alongside to get to the shore.”
Yet while the Danube and its European counterparts are experiencing an influx of tourists, they are not yet overcrowded, claims cruise expert Jane Archer.
“The Danube is certainly busy but it’s not overcrowded and the fact remains that most river ship captains are very, very experienced,” says Archer.
It is a stance shared, unsurprisingly, by industry trade group CLIA (the Cruise Line International Association) who is at pains to point out that “the number of river ships on any river is in line with government regulations”.
Sigyn’s operator, Viking, confirmed that there had been an incident on the Danube and said “we are cooperating with the authorities as required”.
The South Korean victims were on a trip around Europe organised by the Very Good Tour Agency.
Cruise expert Jane Archer answers your Danube river cruise concerns
I’ve heard the Danube is very busy?
The number of river ships sailing the Danube has rocketed in the past decade so there is a lot of traffic but it is a very long river, stretching all the way from Germany to the Black Sea. Even in high summer you often only see a couple of other vessels when you’re sailing.
So there’s no overcrowding?
Well not entirely, but it really only happens at the popular port cities such as Vienna and Budapest, where vessels often have to dock two or three abreast. That’s a nuisance for passengers as instead of looking at the river, they have a view of another ship.
What’s the big attraction with Budapest?
In a nutshell, the waterfront. There are grand buildings, churches and ornate bridges linking Buda and Pest sides. The Hungarian Parliament is superb, high up on the other side of the river the turrets and spires of Fisherman’s Bastion are a great look-out point but equally gorgeous to look at. It’s pretty by day but so spectacular by night, when all the buildings are lit up, that river ships and sightseeing boats offer illuminations cruises beneath the bridges. This is when the river can be particularly busy.
Bottom line: is it safe?
Yes. River cruise lines employ highly-experienced captains and their first priority is always the safety and security of the ship and its passengers. What happened this week was a terrible tragedy but it was a one-off accident. No doubt river cruise lines and the Hungarian authorities will now work together to reassess traffic flows in Budapest, ensuring it is safer than it already is.