Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

Although prolonged border closings continue to push back the start of the 2020 river cruise season, operators are slowly cranking up their marketing machines and opening up inventory for 2022 and beyond to tap what they say is continued strong demand.

AmaWaterways put its 2022 itineraries online in recent weeks, a full six months ahead of schedule. Viking too has opened additional inventory on both 2022 and 2023 river itineraries. American Cruise Lines opened its 2022 season in April. And other lines that wouldn't normally push out their 2022 trips until fall said they are preparing to follow suit.

Avalon Waterways, for instance, said it is giving passengers who were booked on this year's Oberammergau sailings first dibs on 2022 itineraries that include the rescheduled, once-a-decade German Passion play. Then it will open the rest of its 2022 season for early booking, according to Pamela Hoffee, Avalon's managing director.

Crystal River Cruises, which generally leads the pack in opening early bookings, put its full 2022 inventory out in January.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, meanwhile, said it is planning to open its 2022 sailings for booking on July 5.

The moves come as Virtuoso says its agents report river cruises are among their best-selling products for 2021, with new bookings 30% ahead of the same time last.

Individual lines have been reporting similar trends since the travel shutdown.

Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge said 85% of sales in one recent week were new bookings versus rescheduled trips. And Riviera River Cruises recently saw a 300% spike in bookings compared with the same time last year, according to Marilyn Conroy, the U.K.-based company's executive vice president for sales and marketing in North America, who said only a small portion of those were rebookings of 2020 sailings.

Conroy attributes the increase in part to pent-up demand and the company's aggressive outreach to and educational efforts for North American advisors.

In recent weeks, river operators have also rolled out specials to attract more early bookings for future seasons.

Riviera, for example, has cut its deposit in half to $400 on bookings made in June, and it will give that money back as an onboard credit when clients sail. Avalon is offering free cabin upgrades. Scenic and its sister company, Emerald Waterways, are offering free roundtrip air for two or $4,000 discounts per couple for selected European itineraries. And the American Queen Steamboat Co. is offering an early booking discount of up to $1,400 per stateroom for 2021 itineraries booked by Aug. 31.

With the specials and more flexible change and cancellation policies, Hoffee said, "We're just breaking down any barriers, making it a great time to book travel."

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