Are Europe’s Waterways Getting Too Crowded?

Despite a recent spate of collisions, insiders insist that river cruising remains a very safe and satisfying way to see the continent.

Are Europe’s Waterways Getting Too Crowded?

The charming town of Passau in Germany is a popular stop on Danube river cruises.

Photo by Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

It’s been a rough week for river cruises. The MSC Opera cruise ship rammed into a Uniworld river cruise vessel on a busy canal in Venice Sunday morning, only a few days after a fatal Viking Cruises collision on the Danube River last week.

These incidents came after a Viking vessel collided with a tanker ship near Antwerp in April. But aside from these and several other minor incidents in recent years, serious river cruise accidents tend to be few and far between.

“River cruising is still much safer than almost all other travel types,” said Pete Larson, a river cruise specialist who runs the agency River Cruise Guru. “Accidents are going to happen from time to time. Overall, it’s still very safe.”

As for whether any accidents that have occurred might be attributed to overcrowding, Walter Littlejohn, vice president and managing director of Crystal River Cruises, was resolute in his response: “The sheer definition of the word overcrowding—the presence of more people or things in a space than is comfortable, safe, or permissible—would suggest otherwise. Crystal has not encountered any challenges in regard to guest comfort, as guest quality scores are at record highs, nor safety.”

Littlejohn pointed out that river cruises tend to be quite safe when compared to other forms of travel because rivers themselves are not very deep (for instance, when compared to the open seas), and the ships are never far from land.

The issue of safety and crowding on Europe’s waterways tends to resurface, however, not just because of incidents such as the recent collisions but also because the river cruise market has been booming in Europe over the past decade. The number of river cruise ships more than doubled on the continent between 2004 and 2017, according to the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine (CCNR), which oversees Europe’s inland navigation industries.

You can and do feel that growth in certain popular ports and stretches of rivers. “It is getting congested on certain days of the week and at certain times of the day or night,” Larson said. For instance, ports like Amsterdam and Budapest are known to at times have so many river cruise ships docked there simultaneously that vessels have to raft, or dock side-by-side, with as many as four or five river cruise vessels sharing a single docking space.

But Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld, was quick to clarify that the incident in Venice in which the Uniworld ship was involved was not an issue of river cruise ship crowding. “The interesting thing about Venice is that there aren’t really any other river cruise companies there—we’re there and CroisiEurope [is there], and that’s it. This was an isolated situation. [The MSC ship] could have hit anything. I don’t think this had anything to do with river ships and crowding. This was more about the ship lost control,” said Bettridge.

MSC Cruises said the Opera was about to dock at a passenger terminal in Venice when it had a mechanical problem. The crash has raised concerns about ocean-going vessels in Venice, with top Italian officials having called for cruise ships to be banned from using the Giudecca Canal in Venice.

Luxury river cruise line Uniworld is in fact one of only two river cruise companies that sail an itinerary that includes the Po River, the Venice Lagoon, and a short sailing along the Adriatic Sea. One reason the area has so few river cruise lines is because the tidal waters of the Po River and the Adriatic Sea pose unique sailing challenges and require specialized navigational knowledge.

“We have to have captains who are tenured, well-trained and have the right navigation systems,” said Bettridge.

As for the crumpled River Countess, the Uniworld vessel hit by the MSC ship, six of its upcoming cruises have been canceled as the company works to repair the 130-passenger vessel and get it back into service. It is slated to return to service by the end of July, and Uniworld is offering impacted passengers the opportunity to rebook or cancel and get a refund.

The growth in river cruise ships overall, however, means that more skilled captains are needed in general. There were 346 river cruise vessels plying Europe’s inland waterways in 2017, according to CCNR, a number that has likely risen since then as several more vessels were brought into service. With that many vessels, one issue Larson sees is whether there are enough experienced captains to helm them all.

The river cruise lines “are putting out so many new ships it’s become harder to find seasoned captains to pilot them,” observed Larson.

A view of the Elbe River from the Bastei rock formation of Germany’s Elbe Sandstone Mountains

A view of the Elbe River from the Bastei rock formation of Germany’s Elbe Sandstone Mountains

Photo by Mike Mareen/Shutterstock

Seeking less familiar rivers

Beyond hiring skilled crews, Bettridge said that ultimately the onus is on the river cruise lines to continue to grow responsibly as the travel style continues to resonate and gain in popularity (she said that Uniworld continues to see a rise in demand for river cruising).

“We haven’t had tons of accidents,” said Bettridge. But in order for that to remain the case, “We cannot overpower the environment. We need to stay focused on sustainability. We have to stay focused on these beautiful, lovely destinations that we visit,” she said.

One way Uniworld is doing that is by reinvesting heavily in its older vessels, renovating and remodeling them, rather than churning out scores of new ships. She said that river cruise lines also have to work with local authorities on docking schedules that minimize the crowds (for instance, river cruise lines have been trying to alternate their docking schedules more so that not all lines are docking in the same ports at the same time) and look into lesser-known cruising regions, such as Bordeaux in the south of France.

Littlejohn also called out Crystal’s itinerary on the Moselle River, which flows through France, Luxembourg, and Germany: “one of Europe’s prettiest rivers but still less explored than other major rivers,” he said.

Other less traveled rivers in Europe worth exploring include the Elbe River in Germany, which has sailings that connect Berlin and Prague offered by Viking and CroisiEurope. French company CroisiEurope has also pioneered cruises on the Loire River for some serious château peeping.

Those who would like to see more of Central and Eastern Europe should book a Lower Danube river cruise, which Uniworld and other cruise lines offer. These sailings include the Hungarian capital of Budapest, as well as ports in Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

Russia’s Volga River is another option for getting away from blockbuster Danube and Rhine river itineraries. These cruises are book-ended by Moscow and St. Petersburg and include some gorgeous and quirky Russian villages along the way. Passengers get a chance to visit the awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage site Kizhi Pogost, featuring striking 18th-century wooden churches.

You can also cruise the Dnieper River in Ukraine courtesy of Viking Cruises, an itinerary that includes Kiev, Odessa, and Tulcea in Romania.

Said Bettridge, “There [are] millions of miles of rivers.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

>>Next: Europe’s Most Decked-Out New River Cruise Ship Sets Sail

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at Afar where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined Afar in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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