More than 1.5 million travelers took to the rivers of Europe in 2017, 40 percent of them were from North America. The percentage is estimated to grow even more. Why has river cruising become so immensely popular in recent years?
By Petra Schurmann
River cruising in Europe started more than 25 years ago, with very modest beginnings: just-the-basics river ships and two- to three-day tours. From those humble beginnings, a booming branch of the travel industry has developed. The river ships of today resemble floating grand hotels, rather than small, bare-bones barges. But compared to ocean cruise liners which often feature casinos, ice-skating rinks and huge theaters, river ships are much less spectacular, with a maximum height of four decks and a maximum length of 135 meters. The reason for the size limitations are, of course, the bridges and locks that a rivers ship has to navigate.
Sailing on a river ship, however, is the most relaxing way to explore new cultures and countries. That’s been my experience, both when I took my first river cruise a few years ago with Viking River Cruises on the Rhône, and recently with AmaWaterways. I had the chance to explore the Danube in November 2017, the Seine in Summer 2018 and the Rhine during a very sunny November 2018 with AmaWaterways. Despite being in a different city (and sometimes even country) almost every day, there is no packing and unpacking of suitcases required, no looking for the best route or a nice hotel; instead, your hotel swims along with you. As a result, you spend more quality time with the loved one(s) traveling along and have more time to yourself to relax.
In fact, more and more multi-generational groups are coming on board river ships for family reunions. AmaWaterways is especially known for offering a variety of excursions for different fitness levels in each port, proving Nordic walking sticks and bikes for free, or wheelchairs if necessary. The excursion groups tend to be small and guided by local, English-speaking guides.
Even getting on board and leaving the vessel is a smooth and easy process. With a maximum of 200 guests on board a river ship, there are no long lines for embarkation or disembarkation. And thanks to the fact that most European metropoles were created along the main waterways, since those were indispensable for the transport of goods and people before the invention of the railway or automobile, the vessels usually dock very close to the center of each port.
Rudi Schreiner – The Godfather of River Cruising
Interestingly enough, it was Rudi Schreiner, an Austrian entrepreneur, who has been especially important developing the European river cruise market in North America. Born in Vienna, Schreiner developed the river cruise business for three (now competing) companies in the U.S. – Uniworld, Viking River Cruises and AmaWaterways, along the way bringing the river-cruise industry to new heights due to important innovations. Schreiner, who is often referred to by industry experts as the “Godfather of River Cruising,” studied architecture and anthropology. During his studies he used to go on long and exotic trips, like one to the Amazon, where he built a float with friends and traveled down that South American river exploring the life and nature along the river for seven months. Since then, he has been absolutely fascinated with exploring foreign cultures via a waterway.
A decisive moment in the history of river cruising in Europe was the opening of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal in 1993. This project, which dates back to an initiative of Charlemagne in 763, was aimed at creating a large network of interconnected waterways between the North Sea and the Black Sea. Schreiner immediately grasped the immense opportunities that the opening of the canal offered. Instead of cruising for two to three days on the Rhine or Danube, people could suddenly cruise through 15 countries for a week or more.
Schreiner, who was responsible for product development at Uniworld in the early 1990s, managed to grow the river cruise business from 100 passengers in 1995 to 18,000 in the year 2000. Soon after, Schreiner got the chance to become the president of the U.S. operation of Viking River Cruises. It was here that he met Kristin Karst, a travel professional from American Express Travel, who had applied for a job at Viking River Cruises. For both it was love at first sight and both share an enormous passion for river cruises. In 2002, they left Viking River Cruises, to found a company that would offer cruises exactly meeting their own tastes and preferences. Together with their longtime business partner Jimmy Murphy, they founded Amadeus Waterways, which was later renamed AmaWaterways in 2009. Today, the company is co-owned and managed by Rudi Schreiner, Kristin Karst and the son of the late Jimmy Murphy, Gary Murphy. What started in 2002 with three highly motivated and passionate entrepreneurs and one ship has flourished into a company of 220 employees and a fleet of 22 highly awarded river vessels.
“From the beginning,” explains Executive Director and co-owner Kristin Karst, “it was our goal to create a product that we would enjoy ourselves as well. Therefore, a high-quality menu, good wines, friendly and personable service, an understated, elegant ambiance and unique excursions were most important to us.”
At AmaWaterways, Rudi Schreiner put his talent as architect to work. He designed all of the AmaWaterways vessels and launched the first twin-balcony ships in the industry in 2012, with the launch of the AmaCerto.
On May 5, 2019, Rudi’s most stunning creation started her maiden voyage: the AmaMagna, double in width of the usual riverboat and boasting four restaurants, the largest swimming pool of any river ship in the world, suites ranging up to 700 square feet and a dedicated Wellness Center. Once again, AmaWaterways sets new standards for the river-cruising industry.
Unfortunately, one Kristin Karst’s personal dreams, letting her namesake ship, the AmaKristina, sail on the Elbe, has not come to fruition due to the frequently too-low-to-travel waters of the Elbe. A consolation is that the AmaKristina was just awarded with the Gold Travvy Award (the Oscar of the travel industry), for Best River Cruise Ship. Four other Gold Travvy Awards went to AmaWaterways this year: Best River Cruise Line Overall; Best River Cruise in Europe, Asia and Africa.
For Kristin Karst, who grew up in the former GDR, the reasons for the huge success of AmaWaterways are her passion for what she is doing, her creativity, hard work and determination to deliver high-quality products.
Kristin’s passion for traveling began during her childhood. Her mother, a teacher of Russian, was convinced that children should be exposed to foreign languages and cultures as early on as possible.
Karst was nine when she took her first flight with her family heading to a vacation hiking in the Caucasus Mountains. “It was with Aeroflot, and to this day I have vivid memories of the experience. The airport was chaotic. We were surrounded by a wide assortment of people and even chickens in cages. I remember so clearly my feelings of excitement and anticipation. That was my first taste of the passion for travel that was to shape the rest of my life,” she recalls.
In order to earn extra spending money for their trip, Karst and her brother came up with their first business venture – recycling paper products and selling fresh vegetables from their garden. This experience taught Karst to appreciate how hard work and creativity can make your dreams come true.
If you like to experience a river cruise with AmaWaterways yourself, check the website for special deals >>
Most Recent Top Honor: AMAWATERWAYS CO-FOUNDERS RUDI SCHREINER AND KRISTIN KARST INDUCTED INTO THE BRITISH TRAVEL AND HOSPITALITY HALL OF FAME in April 2019.
All photos: Courtesy AmaWaterways, LLC – www.amawaterways.com