Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

The wide smiles on the faces of the owners of AmaWaterways during a webinar on the line's planned summer restart may have summed up best the relief being felt across the sector as Europe begins its long-awaited reopening.

But the virtual informational session with advisors last week also underscored the many unknowns that remain about the return to sailing after a year-and-a-half hiatus, including exactly what protocols guests will need to follow and when a broader offering of multicountry cruises will resume.

Top of mind during a Q&A was what the protocols will be for testing, vaccines and masks which, like everything involving pandemic-era travel, are varied and likely to change.

While some lines, including Crystal River Cruises, Viking, Avalon Waterways and Riviera River Cruises, have imposed vaccine and testing mandates for guests, AmaWaterways is among the lines that have said they are relying on EU and country-specific rules to guide them. And those in many cases have yet to be set -- or are expected to change in the weeks ahead.

The EU has approved a plan to open to international travelers who are vaccinated or test negative for Covid-19 prior to entry, but details are pending. And individual countries can still set their own rules.

Likewise, rules about mask wearing and social distancing are likely to evolve, even before the ships set sail.

On AmaWaterways ships, for instance, co-founder and president Rudi Schreiner said, masks will still be required when guests aren't sitting in lounges or dining area, but that could change as infection rates decline.

"Things are changing so rapidly," Schreiner said. "We are still five to six weeks from the start."

Likewise, in a statement about Crystal River Cruises' planned restart at the end of August, managing director Walter Littlejohn reiterated the lines' policy that all guests and crew not only be vaccinated but also must be tested before boarding. Still, he noted, "our protocols are under continual review based on scientific data and evolving recommendations from local and global authorities."

And Avalon Waterways managing director Pamela Hoffee said in announcing her company's restart Wednesday that the company's "established protocols of pre-travel health requirements, ongoing health check-ins during sailing, enhanced cleaning and planned social distancing in public spaces remains in place." But she added that "we will continue to update as we learn more about the requirements that will be in place for entry and border crossings as more countries announce their final plans."

Perhaps the biggest unknown is which countries will be open and when.

The lines starting the earliest are mostly beginning their operations with one-country itineraries in Italy, Portugal and France, which are open or are expected to open to Americans by July.

First out of the dock will be Uniworld, with a June 20 sailing roundtrip from Venice on Italy's Po River.

Italy has already opened to Americans who come in on nonstop "quarantine-free" flights that require Covid-19 tests both before boarding and on arrival.

More complicated could be the Danube and Rhine sailings, which often cross through three or more countries in one week.

AmaWaterways will launch one of the first Danube sailings, although Hungary at this time remains closed due to high Covid-19 infection rates. Schreiner said he is optimistic that will change before AmaWaterways' planned July 21 Danube sailing of the  AmaMagna between Budapest and Germany.

But should there still be an issue with Hungary at the end of July he said, "then we cruise from Germany to Austria and Slovakia and just to the Hungarian border. But I do not believe that will be the case."

In any case, stay tuned. As the past year and half has taught us, anything can change.

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