Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

With predictions about the travel recovery starting local, U.S. river cruise lines were optimistic about coming out of the pandemic lockdown and into a summer season with high demand from its usual customers as well as those locked out of or leery of traveling to Europe.

But with the new surge of Covid-19 infections spiking around the country, that domestic recovery -- just like Europe's -- is looking less and less likely any time soon.

American Cruise Lines, which was all set to relaunch the season in late June on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, had to cancel those plans less than 48 hours before sailing because the governor of Oregon rolled back the state's reopening status due to a rise in cases there.

Last week, American Cruise Lines also canceled its entire 2020 coastal cruise season in Alaska and pushed back plans for resuming coastal and river cruises until August. Company officials said the suspensions aren't because they can't sail -- many ports are as eager to greet tourists as people are to travel, the cruise company said -- but because of concerns for guests about not only the rise in infections but also constantly changing travel guidance and different state rules that sometimes require they self-quarantine after traveling.

Likewise, American Queen Steamboat Company has continued to push back its planned restart date, with the latest plans calling for its first river sailing in mid-August.

Ironically, Europe looks like a much safer region to travel in, if only Americans could get there.

Absent U.S. customers, at least two of the lines that cater to the North American market have joined other European cruise lines in restarting, but with European customers. AmaWaterways -- whose clientele is 95% American and Canadian -- on July 5 launched the AmaKristina on the Rhine with German guests. And Amadeus River Cruises was launching with a limited number of ships this month.

On the bright side, while most lines -- domestic and international -- have pretty much abandoned marketing around 2020, AmaWaterways vice president of sales Alex Pinelo said demand for their ships in 2021 and 2022 remains sound. In fact, he said, the company in June logged its best month for sales revenue in company history, although it is unclear how much of that includes future cruise credits applied by customers whose 2020 sailings were canceled.

Nonetheless, he said, the post-pandemic world for river cruising looks solid.

"What we are hearing from agents and advisors is definitely that river is coming back faster than ocean and faster even than coach tours," he said.

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