Tui River Cruises has launched after an 18-month pause due to the pandemic. Tui MD Chris Hackney

Tui River Cruises: ‘It’s been a long time coming… we have big aspirations’

Tui’s river cruise product finally launched in mid-August after a delay of more than 18 months due to the global pandemic. Colette Doyle was on board Tui Maya for its inaugural sailing down the Rhine and caught up with MD Chris Hackney to hear about his hopes for the travel behemoth’s latest offering.

“A long time coming.” That’s how Chris Hackney, the managing director of Tui River Cruises, describes the launch of the first of its three ships, Tui Maya.

The company’s plans to break into this particular sector of the cruise market were derailed last March by the onset of Covid-19.

“We were all ready to go with the Maya and sister ship Skyla”, confirms Hackney, adding: “The renovations had all been done (the ships were previously operated by German travel company Werner Tours and Swiss-based Reiseburo Mittelhurgau Fluss) and the crew fully trained.”

The operator hasn’t been idle over the past 18 months however, with Hackney noting that they have used the time “to work with our on-board teams to ensure we have the kind of customer experience in place that we want to offer when the first passengers board”.

Tui River Cruises has launched with the naming of its first ship
Tui Maya will be joined by sister ships, Skyla and Isla.

A golden opportunity in river cruising

Tui had previously undertaken research on the river cruise market back in 2017 and “the real growth” that it saw in the sector persuaded the operator that there was indeed a golden opportunity there.

“We also saw elements where we could bring something new to the market – and that’s flexibility and choice, something we very much wanted to make part of our product proposition,” remarks Hackney.

Asked to define “flexibility and choice”, he goes on to explain that sometimes a river cruise holiday can feel too regimented, with set times for meals, and may lack variety in terms of the number of bars and restaurants on offer. “We wanted to be less formal, but still provide a stand-out service,” he affirms.

That’s the reason behind the way the ships have been renovated, splitting the original dining area into two: the elegant Verdastro, decorated in stylish tones of green and gold with Art Deco-style lighting, is the main restaurant, while the Bistro is a more casual eatery.

When it comes to sipping an on-board tipple, guests have the option of The Observatory, where they can enjoy live entertainment in the evenings, or the more intimate Club Lounge, which works as a daytime venue too.

Now that Tui Maya has welcomed its first guests, Skyla is up next and will be launching at the end of November in time for the Christmas markets tours – “the bookings are looking really good, we’ve clearly captured people’s imagination”, enthuses Hackney. The third vessel, Tui Isla, will complete the fleet when she sets sail next spring.

Tui River Cruises has launched its first ship, Tui Maya.
Tui Maya underwent an extensive refurb before its debut.

Working with travel agents

Hackney describes its itineraries as “a core part of our offering, we want to curate the destinations and those excursions that go alongside in order to give the best overall holiday experience”.

Once all three ships are up and running, they will sail down an enviable selection of rivers including the Main, Danube, Moselle and Rhine, as well as the Dutch and Belgian Waterways.

Agents will be pleased to hear that Tui is reiterating its commitment to the trade by inviting them to sample the new product for themselves. “Our third-party agents are really important to us in sharing our message, so we’re keen to get them to come on board; we have fam trips planned for later this year,” elaborates Hackney.

The first key point for agents to highlight to prospective clients is the modern, contemporary and stylish design on board the ships, something that is the result of a multi-million-pound investment across both the public areas and cabins.

Then there’s the £120 credit a week that guests can put towards excursions – that certainly represents a considerable amount of choice, given that for every seven-day itinerary there are no fewer than 14 excursions available on average.

Hackney agrees that the brand’s successful ocean cruise line, Marella, will mean some crossover from an existing customer base, but he’s adamant that there is a new-to-cruise audience out there too.

“River cruising is such a great way to see a number of different places in a short period of time, from hamlets like Boppard and small towns like Rüdesheim (both on the Rhine) to capital cities such as Vienna and Budapest. Increasingly, people are all about experiential holidays nowadays and the excursions on these itineraries provide that,” he observes.

Despite the challenges of the past 18 months, Hackney is confident about the future of this new venture: “River cruise fits nicely into our portfolio of products. We have big aspirations.”

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