Viking Cruises chairman: ‘COVID is really behind us’
As many countries drop entry restrictions related to COVID-19 as well as the CDC easing advisories for cruise travel, cruise liners are eager to get guests back on their ships again.
In anticipation for a much brighter season the cruise industry about to embark upon, Viking Cruises is launching eight new longships, including four that are purpose-built for the Seine River in France. The remaining four will launch from their docking station in Amsterdam.
“I consider this thing, COVID, is really behind us,” Viking chairman Torstein Hagen said during a media briefing on Wednesday. “There are more of us who will get it. But now it’s a much less serious thing, and we should get back to life as normal.”
Hagen’s remarks echo comments earlier this week from Delta Air Lines chief executive officer Ed Bastian, who said, as Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, that the pandemic crisis, as far as the travel industry is concerned, is over.
Viking was the first major international cruise line to stop operations during the pandemic. The company recommenced with excursions during the summer of 2021, and since then, Hagen said, Viking has not experienced any COVID-related incidents or shutdowns. Hagen also suggested that Viking might relinquish the mask mandate onboard as soon as April 2022.
Erring on the cautious side, testing will still be required—although the frequency is uncertain. Throughout the pandemic, Viking has required both passengers and crew to participate in saliva tests daily, and all of Viking’s ships have been equipped for PCR testing.
The last full year of pre-pandemic travel, 2019 was a record year for Viking, producing $3 billion in revenue. Hagen said Viking is on track to outpace those figures in 2022, with an annual revenue growth forecast of 47% this year. With approximately 10,000 employees, Viking serves an average of 500,000 guests annually.
Since launching with four ships in 1997, Viking’s fleet has grown to 80 ships stationed around the world in 2022. Hagen cited Viking’s long-standing policies and brand as to why the company has grown as much as it has.
Hagen appeared optimistic for a major recovery for the European travel industry this year, but he acknowledged that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war could affect tourists’ plans to visit the continent. Hagen noted that he has said before that his favorite cruise at Viking is the river voyage between St. Petersburg and Moscow in Russia. Obviously, given the current climate and many corporations halting operations in Russia, there are no trips there available right now.
“Hopefully we can be able to experience that in the not-too-distant future,” Hagen said. “It’s really a lovely countryside, and there are some great people. Not necessarily a great regime, but I hope we can come there soon.”
But the new European river cruises are at the forefront of Viking’s 2022 agenda and schedule. With the new longships, the 168-guest vessels feature customized hulls and engines specifically built to navigate the historic Seine, starting from an exclusive docking location at the Port de Grenelle in the center of Paris, just a short walk from the Eiffel Tower.
All of the ships host 84 staterooms in a variety of configurations (from two explorer premium suites to 22 standard staterooms). There are five floor plans to choose from, ranging from 150 square feet for the standard stateroom to 445 square feet for the explorer suite (including the private veranda).
All suites feature two full-size rooms, designed in streamlined Scandinavian style, with a veranda off the living room and a French balcony in the bedroom. Staterooms also have 42-inch flat-screen TVs (with major news channels and on-demand movies), free Wi-Fi, queen-size beds (with the option for a twin-bed configuration), 110/220 volt outlets and USB ports, and private bathrooms (including a glass-enclosed shower, heated floors, and anti-fog mirrors). Laundry service is also available.
Guests have access to common areas across four decks, starting at the top with the sun deck, featuring 360-degree views and shaded sitting areas as well as a walking track. Inside, there is the Aquavit Terrace and Lounge, an indoor/outdoor viewing area at the bow of the ship for alfresco dining, as well as a library and gift shop.
Described to be the “thinking person’s travel experience,” Viking’s trips on small ships are, by design, meant to be calm, quiet, and elegant.
“Luxury means different things to different people,” Hagen noted. “When you see these ships, you see understated elegance.”
Viking also has a number of rules uniform across its fleet that differentiate it from some larger cruise liners, including no casinos, no art auctions, no waiting in lines, no formal nights, no charges for Wi-Fi, beer, or wine at lunch and dinner, and no guests under the age of 18.
Hagen drew a line between Viking and comparable cruise ship operators, underscoring the purpose as to why people travel. While some cruise liners suggest that the ships themselves are destinations, Hagen reiterated that “the destination is the destination.”
“Viking has always been about exploring the world in comfort,” Hagen said. “This is what that comfort looks like.”
Viking is now booking for two itineraries planned for these ships on the Seine, including a new trip set to sail this winter during the 2022 holiday season. The eight-day voyage will include festive shore excursions such as baking homemade gingerbread at the 850-year-old Abbaye du Valasse, visiting an ornament workshop in Rouen, and shopping at traditional Christmas markets throughout Normandy. From now through March 31, 2022, Viking is offering special rates starting at $599 (not including airfare) on all 2022 and 2023 departures.
Viking already runs a number of river cruises throughout Europe on 190-guest longships, including sailing on the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers.
The debut of new longships marks one of Viking’s inaugural events since restarting operations amid the pandemic. The small-ship cruise liner is also soon making its much anticipated (and long-awaited) debut into expedition voyages, exploring destinations in Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, and the Great Lakes. These itineraries were announced pre-pandemic in January 2020, but were since put on hold. Viking is already picking up with the Antarctica expeditions and is expected to set sail on the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to St. Paul, later this year.
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