Viking River Cruises launches vessel, eyes U.S. market

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NEW YORK -- On a Russian river already flush with vessels marketed in the U.S., Viking River Cruises will introduce another ship aimed at American passengers.

The 239-passenger Pahkomov, which is nearly identical to the other river ships plying the Volga River between Moscow and St. Petersburg, will be promoted to U.S. agents this year by Viking, a 3-year-old Swiss river cruise company that recently opened an office in Woodland Hills, Calif.

The firm also will market the 248-passenger Kirov to U.S. passengers, formerly handled by Uniworld in Encino, Calif.

The number of U.S. passengers sailing the Volga plummeted by 30% to 50% during the past two years, a trend not unfamiliar to Viking's U.S. president Rudi Schreiner, formerly with Uniworld in Encino, Calif., who said he expects an upturn.

One of many cathedrals of Yaroslav, a city on Russia's Volga River. "The political situation in Russia has stabilized and [president Vladimir] Putin has placed a firm grip on the country, so I think Americans are less worried about traveling there. There also has been much less negative press recently than there was a few years ago," he said.

Both the Kirov and the Pahkomov, which are owned by Viking, were refurbished in 1999.

The Kirov has been consistently marketed in the U.S. as more deluxe than other ships on the Volga because of what Viking calls their Western management. Although most of the crew is Russian, the cruise director, chef and hotel director are from the U.S. or western European, and Viking exerts full control over the ship's operations.

This differs from most other Volga river ships, which may have a Western host on board but are influenced by Russian managers and owners, as well.

In contrast to the strategy of previous charterers, who tried to fill the Kirov exclusively with U.S. passengers, Schreiner said both the Kirov and the Pahkomov will be sold to the English-speaking market.

He said that would build on the success Viking has had with passengers from Great Britain, whom he said have come to the Volga in increasing numbers during the past few years.

Although the ships are similar and sail the same route, a 10-night sailing on the Kirov starts at $2,748 with air from New York, $400 more than the Pakhomov cruise.

"We are going to feature services and inclusions [on the Kirov], such as wine with dinner and a music and dance performance in Moscow, that are not offered on the Pakhomov," said Schreiner.

Viking is still negotiating some of those add-ons, but Schreiner said the Kirov would likely offer more prestigious guest lecturers than the Pakhomov. The Kirov has seven deluxe cabins, which are the size of two standard units, with hotel-style beds, as well as two suites that are the size of three standard cabins. The Pahkomov has six deluxe cabins and two suites.

The Volga itinerary between Moscow and St. Petersburg, which ranges from 10 to 14 nights, stops at Uglich, Kostroma, Yaroslav, Irma, Kizhi and Petrozavodsk.

The itinerary's blend of key historical sites in Russia's best-known cities and visits to monasteries, cathedrals and artisan centers in other ports make it ideal for first-time travelers to the country, Schreiner said. He estimated that 50% of the passengers on Volga river cruises are first-time visitors to Russia.

Two Russian singers took the day off aboard Viking's Kirov and played chess, one of the country's best-known pasttimes. Meanwhile, Viking is offering cruises to the Ukraine and Siberia that are sold internationally and attract a heavy share of German and Swiss passengers.

The 184-passenger Anton Chekhov sails for two weeks on the Yenisey River in Russian Siberia from Krasnoyarsk to the Arctic Circle.

"This is a cruise for people who have been everywhere and want something different. The route does not offer the cultural advantages of the Volga [itinerary]; it's more for people who just want to experience Siberia," said Schreiner.

Passengers are generally more concerned with their surroundings than their accommodations on this type of cruise, Schreiner said.

The Chekhov was built in 1978 in an Austrian shipyard, in contrast to the ships that ply the Volga, which were nearly all built in the former East Germany.

Last refurbished in 1993, the Chekhov has small cabins like other ships that cruise in the region, with cozy lounges where the focus is warmth and comfort, not luxury. The Siberian cruise is priced from $2,398 with air from New York.

On Ukraine's Dnieper River, the 239-passenger General Lavrinenkov makes a 14-night journey through the Crimean Peninsula from Kiev to the Black Sea.

The ports of call are Zaporozhye, Novaja Kackovka, Odessa, Sevastopol (with an excursion to Yalta), Cherson and Denopopetrovsk.

"Ukraine is not as popular as Russia," said Schreiner, "but there are places on the Ukraine itinerary that fascinate people, like Odessa, Yalta and Sevastopol."

Odessa is known as Ukraine's most beautiful city with its well preserved monuments from centuries ago. The Crimean ports of Yalta and Sevastopol were well kept even during the worst of times under the Soviet regime because they were summer getaways for the Kremlin elite.

The Russian and Ukrainian cruises depart from mid-May through early October.

Viking River Cruises
Phone: (877) 668-4546 or (818) 227-1234
Fax: (818) 227-1237
Web: www.vikingrivers.com
E-mail: [email protected]

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