Scenic Cruises is spending $8.2 million on the acquisition and rebuilding of a 112-passenger ship it is naming the Scenic Tsar, scheduled to relaunch in Russia in May.
Originally, Scenic Cruises' Australian parent company, Scenic Tours, had planned to purchase the 300-passenger Sergey Kuchkin, a ship built in 1979 in Czechoslovakia, but has since abandoned that plan.
"After extensive visits by Scenic management staff to Russia and after consultation with the ship owners, Scenic Tours has come to the conclusion that the Sergey Kuchkin would not provide the standard of cruising that guests of Scenic Tours expect," the company wrote in its Russia brochure.
Scenic Tours said it is hoping to bring the standards set by its company-owned ships in Western Europe to the Volga River with the Scenic Tsar. Scenic Cruises will also add a sixth ship to its Europe fleet, the 169-passenger Scenic Crystal, in April.
The company would not release information as to when the Scenic Tsar was originally built and from what company the vessel is being purchased.
"When the vessel is rebuilt, the hope is that it will be registered as a brand-new vessel, as the refurbishments are that extensive," an official for Scenic wrote in an email.
A stern-to-hull renovation of the four-deck vessel was begun in early September, including everything from the electrical to plumbing systems, from the bridge to the cabins.
When completed, 93% of the cabins and suites will have private balconies, and the cabins will all be outfitted with bathrooms, satellite TVs, in-room safes and minibars.
The Scenic Tsar will house two Panorama suites at 334 square feet each, including an adjacent seating area with a loveseat; and four Royal suites at 300 square feet each, also with a loveseat and seating area. The majority of the remaining cabins will measure either 215 or 236 square feet each, with four lower-deck cabins at 150 square feet each.
The public areas will include a single-seating Crystal dining room as well as a Panorama bar and lounge. There will be an additional, smaller open-air lounge on the third deck and a sun deck with seating on the fourth deck.
There will also be salon and massage services, a gym and sauna, and Scenic will have a doctor onboard.
The ship will offer elevator access to all but the fourth deck.
The Scenic Tsar will sail 15-day Volga River itineraries between St. Petersburg and Moscow, with the option for add-on land tours throughout the region and Europe. The departures will run between March and October. Fares will range from $7,295 to $10,885 per person, based on double occupancy and not including airfare.
Prices include sightseeing tours, concerts and performances; gratuities; airport transfers; and wine, beer and soda during dinner.
The cruises include visits to Svirstroy, Petrozavodsk, Kizhi Island, Goritsy and Uglich as well as four days in Moscow with included tours of the Kremlin, Red Square and the State Armory.
This is not Scenic's first time on the Volga. In 2011, the company chartered the 216-passenger Rossia, a ship that was refurbished in 2005.
The Volga boom
Scenic is adding to what is already significant river cruise development on the Volga, where it is common for operators to buy an older vessel (for several reasons, including availability and economic viability) and do an extensive stern-to-hull refurbishment.
Both Uniworld and Ama Waterways did so in 2011. In May, Uniworld started sailing the completely refurbished, 206-passenger River Victoria on the Volga, and Ama launched the newly renovated, 212-passenger Amakatarina.
Additionally, Viking River Cruises has been working through a four-year project to systematically renovate its four Russia ships (the largest fleet of any river cruise operator that caters to the North American market). Viking has been investing about $10 million per ship and recently announced that to mark the end of the four-year renovation effort, it is renaming all the ships.
The Viking Rurik, previously the Viking Peterhof, will be the last ship to be renovated and is relaunching in 2012.
The Viking Surkov is being renamed the Viking Helgi; the Viking Pakhomov is being renamed the Viking Ingvar; and the Viking Kirov is being renamed the Viking Truvor.
For news on tour operations, wholesalers and river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.