- “The distances travelled by river cruise are not very long, so sometimes passengers will even get to see more as buses travel faster,” says Clabbers, from personal experience.
- The situation on Europe’s other prime tourism river is looking blue, too.
- The river still “looks large and majestic — it doesn’t really give the image of a dried-up river,” she says.
Europe is experiencing another catastrophic summer just when you thought it was safe to return to the pandemic-infested water as reported by CNN.
This time, it’s not an epidemic of red tape; rather, the continent is likely to experience its worst drought in recorded history. The EU’s European Drought Observatory said last week that 63% of the EU and UK’s territory was under either drought warnings or alerts, and that estimate was made before the UK declared a drought in eight out of 14 areas. Every day, there are numerous new alerts.
Water levels are falling as the environment is tinder-dry. Rivers and lakes are drying up, which is catastrophic for trade and industry and is also hurting the tourism business, which was already in trouble due to the pandemic. Even worse, according to analysts, this is a warning harbinger of future events.
Drama on the Rhine
The 766-mile Rhine is one of Europe’s most important trade routes, with container ships plying their way around its looping bends.
But now some of those waterway dreams seem set to run aground.
On Saturday, the water level at the German town of Kaub — a critical juncture — slipped to just 36 centimetres, or 14 inches, according to official figures.
None of this is news, says Clare Weeden, principal lecturer in tourism and marketing at the University of Brighton.
“Anybody who operates river cruise boats would have had an understanding of this because of the way the climate has changed in the last 20 years,” she says, adding that low levels on the Rhine and Danube have seen incidents of passengers being bussed from one destination to another for the past five or six years.
But while the cruise companies may have foreseen this, clients haven’t.
A booming business — for now
Helen Prochilo of cruise specialist Promal Vacations calls European river cruising “the hottest thing we are selling this year.”
If in difficult, those with swimming pools on board can empty them.
Railings, furniture and even the captain’s bridge are designed to be lowered, while passing under bridges in high water, adds Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise + Travel, a Virtuoso member agency in Chicago.
“The ship emptied the pool to lighten the load and we could actually feel the ship tapping the bottom of the river,” she says.
“We never saw the captain after the first night.”
“I’m also advising them to cruise earlier in the season as the river levels don’t seem to be a problem if travelling in May or June versus July or August,” she says.
“The safety of guests and crew will be central to any decisions relating to itineraries.
River cruise specialist Riviera Travel said in a statement: “We have seen minimal disruption so far as we have put measures in places, such as ship swaps and minor itinerary changes, to ensure guests can still make the most of their cruises.”
Clabbers says that “many lines” do this.
And if all else fails, they use the boat as a hotel, and bus travellers to their destinations each day.
It may not be as romantic, but it’s effective.
No river unscathed
The picture is bleak for all of Europe’s rivers.
“I think canals are a no-go,” says Weeden, about the future.
In the UK, the source of the Thames has moved five miles downriver for the first time in history.
The situation on Europe’s other prime tourism river is looking blue, too.
The drought is already devastating for trade — an average 1,600-tonne vessel can now only navigate the river without any cargo, according to the Hungary Tourist Board.
But not all companies are managing to navigate the river — and not all of those are having as good an experience of bussing as Clabbers did.
“I had travellers whose ship couldn’t make it to Budapest — they had to board their ship in Komarno” — about an hour away in Slovakia — says tour guide Julia Kravianszky.
Things are already looking different in Budapest, perhaps the most beautiful city along the river.
“Margaret Island looks bigger, because all the rocks at the bottom of the river are visible now.”
The river still “looks large and majestic — it doesn’t really give the image of a dried-up river,” she says.
For now, it’s the locals who can tell the difference.
‘If it’s like this next year, I’ll retire’
And then there’s Italy, where the Po River is at historic lows, and has close to disappeared in places.
“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 an erosion of the bottom so the river has actually got deeper.
His small boats usually dart all over the river, and up close to the beaches, to see things — Barborini usually points out medieval remains, and has found things like buffalo bones and even mammoth teeth, he says, while out on excursions.
Anyone using a boat in the Po needs to be extremely experienced right now — even professional fishermen are not able to navigate, he says.
Italy’s largest lake, Garda, is nearing its lowest ever levels, adding a stretch of land around the peninsula of Sirmione, which famously ends with some impressive Roman ruins — or did, until now.
“They stopped renting out boats, and many owners were forced to remove their boats from the water.
The Tisza lake cross-swimming event scheduled for the 13th of August was cancelled.”
Tisza borders the Hortobágy National Park, a landscape of plains and wetlands, that has UNESCO World Heritage status.
Animals have been brought here to graze for around 2,000 years.
From drought to flash floods
The largest lake in Italy, Garda, is getting close to reaching its lowest elevations ever, adding a stretch of land around the Sirmione peninsula, which is famous for having some impressive Roman ruins at its tip — or once did, until now “Many boat owners were forced to remove their vessels from the water after they stopped renting out boats.
The 13th of August’s cross-swimming competition in Tisza Lake was postponed.”
The grasslands and wetlands of the Hortobágy National Park, which is bordered by the Tisza, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For 2,000 years, people have brought their animals here to graze.
An uncertain future
“Travel has a front row seat as climate change unfolds in the destinations we visit and, if this becomes a standard summer, it will massively impact our industry.
Unless urgent action is taken on climate change, the reality is that extreme weather is going to have an impact on the destinations and communities we visit.”
That’s the opinion of Susanne Etti, environmental impact manager at Intrepid Travel, who calls this summer “a wake-up call for the entire sector.”
Ships are mobile, companies are not loyal to destinations.
“As the weather becomes more unpredictable, I think there’s going to be some kind of reset.”
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