River cruising has sailed full steam ahead in a sector that has otherwise hit the rocks for the past year, thanks to Covid-19.

The pandemic has forced owners of oceangoing passengerships to lay up their fleets since last March, leaving them without revenue and billions of dollars in debt.

But owners of rivergoing vessels, from longships on the Danube to Mississippi River steamboats, have seen more bookings as passengers seek out less-crowded trips.

"We believe that our domestic routes offer a more attractive cruise option this year, and beyond, as travellers seek close-to-home destinations and small-capacity cruises with easy access to shore-side healthcare if needed," an American Queen Steamboat Co spokesman told TradeWinds.

Bookings up by a third

January and February 2021 bookings for American Queen, a US-based owner of four "paddlewheelers" that glide along the Mississippi, have risen 35% compared with the prior two months.

John Waggoner, American Queen Steamboat Co chairman and chief executive. Photo: American Queen Steamboat Co

"February 2021 is projected to be the strongest booking month for the company in the past year," the spokesman said.

The company, which also owns three oceangoing expedition vessels under Victory Cruise Lines, has opened its 2023 bookings a year earlier to capitalise on pent-up demand for river cruising.

"American Queen Steamboat Co and Victory Cruise Lines have seen a high demand for North American cruises, including itineraries aboard Victory Cruise Lines’ expedition vessels and famed river cruises on American Queen Steamboat Co’s paddlewheelers," the spokesman said.

The America Queen's fleet comprises the 436-berth American Queen (built 1995), 245-berth American Countess (built 2020), 223-berth American Empress (built 2002) and 166-berth American Duchess (built 2017).

Victory Cruise Lines' fleet, which sails on the Great Lakes and US coasts, includes the 210-berth Victory I (built 2000), 220-berth Victory II and 200-berth Ocean Victory (both built 2021).

About American Queen Steamboat Co

American Queen Steamboat Co operates four paddlewheeler steamboats on the US' Mississippi River.

It also owns three cruiseships that offer itineraries on the Great Lakes and US coasts under the name Victory Cruise Lines.

Parent company HMS Global Maritime, which was founded by American Queen Steamboat Co chairman and chief executive John Waggoner, also owns eight ferries under HMS Ferries and three high-speed vessels under Seaward Services.

Since October, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)'s Framework for Conditional Sailing has placed Covid-19 requirements on passengerships in US waters, which include simulated voyages and on-board virus testing labs.

Ensuring Covid-19 safety

Only the American Queen Steamboat's flagship vessel is subject to the CDC rules because it has more than 250 berths, but the company is still working with health advisors to ensure safe sailing, the spokesman said.

"American Queen Steamboat Co and Victory Cruise Lines are continuing to work with leading health advisors, including a partnership with VIKAND medical solutions, and under the discretion of the CDC on evolving guidelines to protect guests, crew and the communities the vessels visit," the spokesman said.

"With safety top of mind, American Queen Steamboat Co is very optimistic about the future and has a great deal to look forward to, including the debut of our newest paddlewheeler, the American Countess."

River-cruising vessel owners that sail outside the US are also seeing strong interest from passengers. Major names worldwide include Viking River Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Avalon River Cruises and AmaWaterways.

AmaWaterways — a US-based owner of 25 rivergoing vessels under 200 berths that sail rivers in Europe, Vietnam, Africa and Egypt — hosted more than 1,500 passengers last year on one ship that operated in Germany.

"The river cruise segment has seen incredible growth over the last decade, and with international travel restrictions over the past 12 months, AmaWaterways is seeing reservations for its 2022 river cruise vacations well ahead of what it normally sees this far in advance," the company told TradeWinds.

'Looking for safe and comfortable ways'

"Travellers are looking for safe and comfortable ways to get back out into the world, and the small-ship river cruise experience is experiencing strong demand from repeat guests and those new to river cruising."

AmaWaterways' 161-berth river cruiseship AmaSerena (built 2015) is seen on the Rhine River in Cologne, Germany. Photo: Raimond Spekking

"The wide variety of options ensures each experience is comfortable and without a crowd, and that is very appealing to today’s travellers that are concerned about health and safety."

AmaWaterway's plan to resume European sailing in this month is still pending, but expected vaccine rollouts have pushed 2022 reservations up by 40% against last year's advanced bookings.

"In response to this strong demand, the company is opening its reservations for the 2023 season earlier than ever before," AmaWaterways said.