From barges to gulets, small ships a big hit in the Covid era

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The HMS Gassten, a former Swedish Navy minesweeper with five cabins that sails the western fjords of Norway.
The HMS Gassten, a former Swedish Navy minesweeper with five cabins that sails the western fjords of Norway.

One of the most positive travel trends to emerge from Covid-19 has been the "RV effect." But traveler responses to the pandemic are also creating a silver lining beyond recreational vehicle road trips and private villas to include yachts, river barges, schooners, even a renovated minesweeper.

As travelers seek close-to-home and private options to travel in the pandemic, Amtrak Vacations said it has seen a dramatic rise in new-to-rail-vacation customers.

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Luxury tour operators and yacht rental companies said they are seeing growing demand from first-time customers and ocean cruisers for the variety of small-boat products that enable families or groups of friends to travel in their own bubble.

Private yacht charter company the Moorings, which has a fleet of 1,000 yachts in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and exotic locales like French Polynesia and the Indian Ocean, said that while they, like most travel companies, have had a roller coaster year due to the changing border restrictions that kept most of their fleet dockside, 2021 is "through the roof," due to rebookings and new customers.

"We are seeing a huge shift from the cruise industry into private yachts -- for obvious reasons," said Ian Pedersen, the company's senior marketing manager for the U.S.

The top destination for Americans right now, he said, is the British Virgin Islands, as people are still looking to stay close to home in 2021.

A Moorings yacht in Greece. The Moorings said it expects a strong rebound in yacht charters in 2021 as more travelers seek options for private travel.
A Moorings yacht in Greece. The Moorings said it expects a strong rebound in yacht charters in 2021 as more travelers seek options for private travel.

In Europe, river barge companies said they are looking at a solid rebound as their boats, which generally carry six to 18 passengers, are perfect for full buyouts that enable guests to create their own itineraries and meals in a Covid-safe bubble.

"There is still a significant amount of uncertainty around travel at the moment, but bookings for 2021 are looking very strong," said Gary Franklin, vice president of trains and cruises for Belmond. "We have been fortunate in that, rather than cancel altogether, a large number of our guests have deferred their trip to later this year or next.

He said that Belmond Afloat in France particularly appeals to families and groups of friends who have been unable to see each other for a while and who are looking to escape in a private and intimate, safe setting."

Liam Dunch, who oversees Europe products for Abercrombie & Kent, said the company's river barge offerings are more popular than ever.

"Barge cruising encompasses so much of what we've learned to appreciate over the last few months at home," he said. "It's all about traveling at a slower pace to immerse yourself in one region and spending time outside, biking along picturesque towpaths, strolling through uncrowded local villages or simply watching the passing scenery from a cozy deck chair."

And as John Wood-Dow, director of European Waterways said, barge cruising "is in the right place at the right time."

George Morgan-Grenville, founder of the U.K.-based luxury tour operator Red Savannah, said another popular cruise product for full buyouts, and a product Red Savannah expects to expand due to growing interest, is gulets: small, wooden Turkish schooners that, like river barges, also generally carry between six and 18 guests.

"They have sails but are typically powered by engines," he said of gulets, calling them a "brilliant way" to discover the Lycian coast in Turkey or the islands of Croatia.

Katarina Line said it, too, is seeing strong demand for its collection of crewed gulets that cruise the Adriatic.

And one new and unusual product that Morgan-Grenville is particularly excited about being able to sell for next year: the HMS Gassten, a former Swedish Navy minesweeper that has been converted into a passenger vessel with five cabins that sails the western fjords of Norway. 

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