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No river in Europe is safe from the current drought: the case of river cruises and tourism

2022-08-14T18:09:56.250Z

Rivers and lakes dry up, and in addition to having devastating effects on trade and industry, it also affects tourism.



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(CNN) --

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water after the pandemic, Europe is experiencing another catastrophic summer.

This time, it's not about the pandemic bureaucracy, but what appears to be the worst drought in the continent's history.

Some 63% of land in the European Union and the United Kingdom had drought warnings or alerts, according to the EU's European Drought Observatory last week, and that figure was issued before the United Kingdom declared a drought in eight of the 14 areas.

New alerts arrive every day.

While the landscape is dry as tinder, water levels plummet.

Rivers and lakes dry up, and in addition to having devastating effects on commerce and industry, it also affects a sector that was already on its knees thanks to the pandemic: tourism.

Worse yet, experts say this is a worrying sign of things to come.

drama on the rhine

The Rhine is so dry that commercial shipping is unsustainable.

Credit: Michael Probst/AP

The 1,232-kilometre (766-mile) Rhine is one of Europe's most important trade routes, with container ships plying its curves.

It's also a classic cruise itinerary, and now some of those waterway dreams seem to run aground.

On Saturday, the water level in the German city of Kaub, a critical juncture, fell to just 36 centimeters, or 14 inches, according to official figures.

That's devastatingly low: At 16 inches, commercial shipping becomes unprofitable.

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None of this is news, says Clare Weeden, senior lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton.

  • The Rhine shrinks, endangering Europe's largest economy

“Anyone operating river cruise ships would have understood this because of the way the climate has changed in the last 20 years,” he says, adding that low levels on the Rhine and Danube have seen bus-borne passenger services. from one destination to another during the last five or six years.

But while cruise companies may have anticipated this, customers have not.

"River cruises are becoming much more popular, especially with active people," he says.

"You dock early, spend all day enjoying a city, then come back to the ship at the end of the day and keep sailing. It's much quieter [than the massive cruise ships]. But drought and climate change have coincided with rising river cruises.

Despite this, he warns that, with the climate crisis, Europe's traditional river cruises "are definitely going to suffer" and predicts that "the sector is likely to recompose itself as a result".

A booming business, for now

The Rhine is a classic destination for river cruises in Europe.

Credit: Michael Probst/AP

Helen Prochilo of specialist cruise company Promal Vacations calls European river cruises "the best thing we're selling this year."

A little hot: Although none of his clients have been affected yet, he says that among his fellow agents, one had a client's cruise canceled this week and another had his itinerary adjusted.

River cruise modifications tend to be last minute as they are dependent on water levels and rainfall.

Prochilo says many river cruise ships are specifically built with flatter hulls to cope with low water levels.

In case of difficulty, those who have pools on board can empty them.

Railings, furniture and even the captain's bridge are designed to lower while passing under bridges in high water, adds Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise + Travel, a Virtuoso member agency in Chicago.

Not that that prevents problems.

In 2017, Prochilo booked a Rhine sailing Emerald herself, only to find "very low levels" of water.

"The ship emptied the pool to lighten the load and we could feel the ship hitting the bottom of the river," she says.

"We never saw the captain after the first night. He stayed on the bridge to make sure the ship was handled with care."

Others were not so lucky.

Prochilo comments that they floated past another cruise line that was unloading its passengers onto buses.

"The construction of the boat and the experience of the captains is very important when the weather is like this," he says.

And he doesn't want to take any chances: seeing the water level in the Rhine drop over the last month has made him advise potential buyers to wait until next year.

"I also advise sailing earlier in the season, as river levels don't seem to be an issue if you travel in May or June rather than July or August," he says.

For those who have already booked, it makes regular calls to river cruise lines to check on conditions, which are pretty devastating: Levels are "exceptionally low" in some areas, German officials told CNN on Friday.

In fact, Weeden believes that Rhine cruises "will be a thing of the past" before too long.

So what will happen this year?

CLIA, which represents cruise operators, indicates:

"River cruise operators...are monitoring the situation and responding appropriately in collaboration with the relevant authorities. The safety of guests and crew will be paramount to any decisions related to itineraries. When changes are planned, operators work hard to minimize any disruption.

River cruise specialist Riviera Travel said in a statement: "We have seen minimal disruption so far as we have implemented measures, such as ship swaps and minor itinerary changes, to ensure guests can still get the most out of their cruises."

A ship might leave a destination a couple of hours earlier, for example.

The Viking Cruises website states that "low water levels will affect select river itineraries."

Affected travelers will be contacted by the cruise line.

To mitigate the problems, Viking operates sister ships that sail the same itinerary, but in opposite directions.

If there is a problem on one side of the river, guests can transfer to the other boat.

Clabbers points out that "lots of lines" do this.

"If low (or high) tide prevents passage at a given point, the line simply moves downstream passengers (and their luggage) to the upstream boat and vice versa. The boats return to their point of origin with their 'new' passengers who simply continue their journey without too much interruption."

And if all else fails, they use the ship as a hotel and travel by bus to their destinations every day.

It may not be as romantic, but it is effective.

"Distances covered by a river cruise are not very long, so sometimes passengers will even be able to see more as the buses travel faster," says Clabbers, from personal experience.

"On a Uniworld cruise a few years ago, the water level kept the ship in Vienna for three days, and the company did a fantastic job of organizing additional tours that showed us places of interest that were not included in our original program."

Do you have a Rhine cruise booked for this year?

Do not cancel, he says, you can be penalized.

Just try to go with the flow.

But if you haven't booked yet and want to travel this year, he suggests looking for alternatives like the Seine or the Duero.

no river is safe

The Danube has dropped in Budapest.

Credit: Anna Szilagyi/AP

Not that they are much better.

The picture is bleak for all the rivers in Europe.

In France, parts of the famous Loire River have almost completely dried up.

Some channels have also been closed.

"I think the channels are banned," says Weeden, about the future.

In the UK, the headwaters of the Thames have moved 8 kilometers downstream for the first time in history.

And of course there is the Danube.

The situation on Europe's other main tourist river also looks pitiful.

Emergency dredging is currently being carried out in the lower part of the river, in Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria.

Although there are "no problems" on the Austrian stretch, authorities told CNN on Friday, the situation in Hungary, perhaps the most famous part of the Danube, is more worrying.

The drought is already devastating for trade: An average 1,600-tonne ship can now only navigate the river without cargo, according to the Hungarian Tourist Board.

Until now, the situation of the tourist boats is maintained.

The Mahart Passnave Passenger Shipping Ltd., which runs river cruises, continues to operate along the Danube, although some stations north of Budapest are closed.

Between Szentendre and Visegràd, about 24 kilometers north of the capital, the river makes a wide detour.

"Some stations [there] have been closed for about a month, as boats cannot moor due to low water levels," reports a representative from the Hungarian Tourist Office.

But not all companies get to navigate the river, and not all have as good an experience as Clabbers had.

"I had travelers whose ship couldn't get to Budapest, they had to board their ship in Komarno," about an hour away in Slovakia, according to tour guide Julia Kravianszky.

"The travelers flew to Budapest, from where they were taken to Komarno by bus, and the next day they were taken back to Budapest for their city tour, only to return to the ship by bus after the tour."

Things already look different in Budapest, perhaps the most beautiful city along the river.

"The Danube is visibly lower right now, it's been really low for two or three weeks," says Kravianszky.

"Margarita Island looks bigger, because all the rocks at the bottom of the river are visible right now. Some parts of the old Margaret Bridge, destroyed in World War II, are also visible now."

However, do not cancel your trip yet.

The river still "looks big and majestic, it doesn't really give the image of a dry river," she says.

For now, it is the locals who can tell the difference.

“If it is like that next year, I will retire”

In Italy, the Po is unnavigable in some parts.

Credit: Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

And then there is Italy, where the Po River is at record lows and has all but disappeared in places.

It's disastrous news for the entire country, and has also put an end to tourism on parts of the river this summer.

For the past 20 years, Stefano Barborini has chartered boats and taken visitors to his stretch of the Po near Parma.

This year, he has not been able to manage a single exit.

"I've been on the Po for 40 years and this has never happened before," he says.

"We've had droughts before, but this low, never. There's been bottom erosion, so the river has actually gotten deeper. It's usually navigable year-round."

This year, he says, "it started very early, it didn't rain and everything dried up."

Their little boats usually cruise the entire river and come up to the beaches to see things.

Barborini usually points to medieval remains and has found things like buffalo bones and even mammoth teeth, he says, during his excursions.

He normally rents boats from fishermen, but he asks, "Where would they go fishing?"

Anyone using a pot at the Po needs to be very experienced at this point;

even professional fishermen can't sail, he says.

Barborini has about 30 excursions scheduled for September.

By then, expect water levels to be higher.

Even then, it could be difficult to get passengers on and off, as they will have to navigate steep walks to get on and off the ship.

"If it's the same next year, I'll retire," he says.

dry lakes

Lake Garda's water levels have plummeted in places like Sirmione.

Credit: Antonio Calanni/AP

It's not just the rivers.

Italy's largest lake, Garda, approaches its lowest levels, adding a stretch of land around the Sirmione peninsula, complete with some impressive Roman ruins.

And parts of Lake Tisza, Hungary's largest man-made lake, are no longer accessible by boat, according to Kravianszky.

"At Abadki [a popular rental spot] the water level is 50 centimeters [20 inches] lower than the minimum required," she says.

"They stopped renting boats and many owners were forced to take their boats out of the water. The cross-swim event on Lake Tisza scheduled for August 13 was cancelled."

Tisza borders the Hortobágy National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed landscape of plains and wetlands.

Animals have been brought here to graze for around 2,000 years.

"It's one of [Hungary's] defining characteristics... it's heartbreaking to see how it's slowly drying up, how birds have started to avoid the area or nest less around the National Park," says Kravianszky.

From drought to flash floods

Las Vegas has been hit by flash flooding this week, following drought in nearby Lake Mead.

Credit:


Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The flip side of the drought is flash flooding, something that has hit the US in recent weeks, with Yellowstone suffering a once-in-500-year incident in June and two people killed in Las Vegas this week.

Barborini says he is worried about the Po this fall.

"Two years ago the water levels were high in January and February, because when the snow fell on the Alps it immediately warmed up and dropped to levels that were not normal," he says.

"The climate has changed a lot in the last five or six years."

An uncertain future

The Elbe is also at historically low levels.

Credit: Philipp Schulze/Picture Alliance/dpa/AP

“Travel has a front row seat as climate change plays out in the destinations we visit and if it becomes a standard summer it will have a massive impact on our industry. Unless urgent action is taken against climate change climate change, the reality is that extreme weather will impact the destinations and communities we visit.

That is the opinion of Susanne Etti, responsible for environmental impact at Intrepid Travel, who calls this summer "a wake-up call for the entire sector".

She is not alone.

"The places where we can ski have shrunk; so will river cruises in 20 years. There won't even be (environmentally harmful) snow cannons to help," says Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel.

Weeden believes that as tourism on the Rhine dries up, river cruise companies will look elsewhere.

"Ships are mobile, companies are not loyal to destinations. They will move and find new areas for river cruises beyond the traditional European ones," he says.

They will also look beyond the rivers.

Market leader Viking says it has "invested heavily in ocean cruising in recent years".

This year, he says, has shown us that "climate change is not just about heat, but also about water.

"As the weather becomes more unpredictable, I think there will be some kind of readjustment."

Source: cnnespanol

All news articles on 2022-08-14

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