River cruises are an easy way for clients to dip into the world’s largest country and send postcards signed, from Russia with love, says Jeannine Williamson.
Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, and until relatively recently it remained shrouded in secrecy.
A charismatic destination immortalised in films and books, including Doctor Zhivago and War and Peace, Russia’s network of rivers, lakes and canals provide an unforgettable journey through part of the world’s largest country by landmass.
The popularity of Russia river cruises has grown significantly in recent years, and the mighty Volga and interconnecting waterways take visitors deep into the heart of Russia on larger-than-average ships.
The majority of itineraries sail between Moscow and St Petersburg with overnight stays at each end of itineraries, either on board or in hotels. Shore excursions take in world famous sights including Moscow’s Red Square with dazzling onion-domed St Basil’s Cathedral and the breath-taking Hermitage in St Petersburg, one of the world’s largest museums.
With 1,057 rooms and a staggering three million exhibits, the guided tour is the best way of seeing the highlights that include works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh.
A more unusual excursion takes passengers underground to the Moscow metro system. Built by Stalin in 1932, it has to be seen to be believed. The spotlessly clean stations resemble art galleries with elaborate chandeliers, bronze statues and huge gold-framed murals.
The chance to take part in Russian lessons, vodka tasting and Russian doll painting workshops are included in many river cruises, while cultural enrichments include optional visits to ballets and classical concerts.
A landmark year
This year marks a significant milestone for Russian river cruises with Vodohod, one of the best-kept river cruising secrets, entering the UK market last month. The largest Russian river cruise company has been operating for more than 15 years and boasts a fleet of 26 vessels – 11 dedicated to international and English-speaking guests – rated from three to five stars.
The line’s international marketing director Mario Bounas explains: “A combination of rich history, cultural intrigue and natural wonders make Russia a must-visit destination for anyone seeking a truly off-the-beaten-path and unique travel experience.
“Russia has the potential to become the next go-to river cruise destination with a huge river network and supporting infrastructure. We have undertaken an ambitious revitalisation of the existing fleet and within three years every international ship will have undergone a comprehensive refurbishment.”
Additionally, in May Vodohod will unveil the Mustai Karim, the first-ever brand new five-star Russian-built river ship, to sail on the Volga, plus a pioneering wilderness journey through Siberia along the Yenisei on the five-star refurbished Maxim Gorky. This exciting sailing into rugged landscapes will include a helicopter journey to meet local tribes who have never encountered visitors from the west.
“Our immediate focus is to build relationships with the UK trade”, adds Bounas. “The long term focus is to open up Russia by offering cruises on rivers and lakes that are currently not open to international travellers. The Yenisei is our first initiative. Watch this space for announcements of new rivers.”
In addition to the UK-based sales and marketing support team and newly launched English website, Vodohod is offering competitive commission levels and fam opportunities.
The traditional view
Meanwhile, Riviera Travel has expanded its Russia product with A Russian Odyssey Aboard the MS Rossia. Head of river cruises Katja Hildebrandt says: “Our Russian river cruises have proven to be a huge success with our customers since we launched in 2018. One of the biggest draws is being able to see the contrasts between the big cities like Moscow and St Petersburg with the more traditional life in Kizhi and Uglich.
“We know our customers really appreciate the convenience of seeing this vast and varied country from the comfort of a well-appointed river cruise ship where even the time spent travelling is a treat.”
For the first time, Titan Travel is selling Uniworld’s Imperial Waterways of Russia tour in 2020, which takes passengers from Moscow to St Petersburg, with stops including the Golden Ring cities of Uglich and Yaroslavl. These cities were the seats of power in medieval Russia and played a pivotal role in history and the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The itinerary combines Uniworld’s all-inclusive cruising with Titan’s stress-free VIP home pick-up service.
The last word goes to CLIA UK & Ireland director Andy Harmer: “With its marvellous cities and world-class museums, historical towns and scenic waterways, a Russia river cruise has so much to offer. Although passenger numbers in this region has remained steady over the last decade, customer interest in exploring this vast country is certainly growing.
“A Russian river cruise has great appeal to repeat guests who have already ticked off the main European rivers such as the Rhine, Danube and Douro and are expanding their sights to less travelled regions.
“When selling this type of cruise, agents should focus on the varied itineraries, from overnight stays in the big cities of Moscow and St Petersburg to the easy access of remote towns lesser known.”
Vodka tasting aside, by the end of a river cruise clients will have immersed themselves in all things Russian and return home with a real taste of this enthralling country.