Harry Kemble assesses the potential of established line Vodohod to get a foothold in the UK market

According to Clia figures, 6,000 British and Irish passengers cruised on Russian rivers in 2018. This was a 44.5% drop from 2017, when 10,800 river passengers sailed in Russia.

Passenger numbers have flitted between nearly 5,000 and 11,000 each year since 2011. In comparison, more than 134,000 UK passengers sailed on the Rhine, Moselle and Danube rivers in 2018.

Russia’s Volga River is the longest in Europe at 2,293 miles. Its most popular route is between Moscow and St Petersburg, which typically takes seven to 10 days.

Four lines that spoke to Travel Weekly said they wanted to increase capacity in Russia – and sail ships that are full. But, unlike other countries, red tape prevents cruise lines based outside of Russia from deploying new-build vessels on its rivers. Instead, lines often have to charter ships built in Russia.

Paul Melinis, APT’s managing director for the UK and Europe, said: “All of the operators want to do more in Russia over the next 12 to 24 months, but you will not see more there unless something changes. It is not the easiest area to [deploy] a ship.”

APT operates two charter ships in the country, while Uniworld offers six sailings from May through to July on a charter vessel.

Strong demand

Uniworld’s UK managing director, Chris Townson, said: “There is not a tremendous amount you can do. Bureaucracy is one of the areas that you have to deal with. No one has loads of ships in Russia,” he added. “There is certainly demand for it.”

Luxury line Scenic has been operating in the country since 2012, when it renamed a charter vessel Scenic Tsar. Trade sales director Joseph Grimley said “scaremongering” had put some off Russia, citing incidents such as Russian football hooligans targeting English fans in France in 2016.

“The media was sensationalising it, saying Russia could be dangerous, [but] it has grown in popularity over the last few years,” said Grimley.

Diplomatic tensions between the countries soured in 2018 following the Salisbury poisonings.

Russia then hosted the 2018 World Cup and saw a 10% rise in international visitors that year. Visa‑free entry was offered to fans, and since the tournament the country has announced plans to introduce electronic visas.

Russian competition

This month, Russian river line Vodohod officially started offering sailings to the international market. The line operates solely in Russia, and has done for more than 15 years.

UK managing director John Warner, who was appointed last year to head Vodohod’s international office in London, has been tasked with launching the brand and offering a level of service and delivery that “while being authentically Russian has Western sensibilities”.

“We are here to look after the needs of the international guests without taking away from the authentic nature of the destination,” he said, adding: “We are almost like the best-kept secret in river cruising and actually we are the third-largest river cruise company in the world.”

By 2021, Vodohod will operate 26 vessels – nearly half of which will be aimed at the international market.

Warner believes Russia is a destination for experienced river cruisers and the new-to-cruise sector.

So do other lines. “More consumers are asking for it,” said Grimley. “There are two types of consumers: the experienced consumer and the type who wants to visit different cities.”

Should Vodohod get a foothold in the UK market, Russia could begin to rival Europe’s key waterways.

More: Russian river cruise line Vodohod seeks foothold in UK