Amid another rise in tensions between Russia and Ukraine last week, river cruise lines said they were cutting their 2015 capacity in Russia, in some cases canceling Russia altogether, and tour operators reported continued soft bookings there as U.S. travelers continue to shun the country.
AmaWaterways last week announced that it would not operate its 212-passenger AmaKatarina on Russia's Volga River at all in 2015.
"Russia has been a strong product," said AmaWaterways President Rudi Schreiner. "However, due to what has been taking place in Russia and Ukraine, the AmaWaterways senior leadership team has given careful thought to how to best handle [the situation], in order to ensure the best possible experiences for our guests. At this time, we have decided not to operate cruises aboard the AmaKatarina in 2015."
Ama launched the AmaKatarina in 2011. The ship, originally built in the 1980s, had been completely redesigned and rebuilt from the hull. Ama contributed capital to the refurbishment and signed a five-year lease with the ship's owner, Russia-based Vodohod, with an option to renew.
Viking Cruises and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collections also have cut back their Russia departures in 2015. Viking will only operate three of its five vessels in Russia for 2015 — the Viking Helgi, Viking Truvor and Viking Ingvar. And Uniworld will only offer four of the originally schedule 12 departures in 2015 of its 202-passenger River Victoria.
"Previously, Russia has been one of our best-selling itineraries, so the current softness in demand is entirely due to the Ukraine crisis and general geopolitical tensions in the region," said Uniworld President Guy Young.
The decision by the river cruise lines to cut Russia capacity comes just as tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the West again came to a head last week. On Nov. 3, Russia-backed rebel separatist leaders in two eastern Ukraine states declared victory in local elections. The results were endorsed by Russia and denounced by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Western countries.
The year has been peppered with flare-ups in the region, starting with Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March. Then, in July, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 was downed as it flew over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. An investigation is still underway as to the cause, but initial reports suggested that the plane might have been downed by a surface-to-air missile.
And while the actual crisis and political clashes are in Ukraine, Russia's support of and involvement in the eastern Ukraine separatist movement appears to have turned off U.S. travelers to Russia itself, which had been experiencing a boom in tourism just prior to the conflict.
"We do still have bookings and inquiries coming in, but there are indeed fewer requests right now than would be typical," said Annie Lucas, vice president of MIR Corp., a large Russia-specialist tour operator.
Lucas added that those still willing to travel to Russia will benefit from a favorable dollar-ruble exchange rate and reduced crowds at the country's classic sites.