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European River Cruising - Using the Rules of the High Seas to Avoid Accessibility

26/08/2010 | 1 comments

photo of river cruise boat (Bill Forrester)Photo: European River Cruiser, by Australian Pacific Tours

By Bill Forrester

We have spent a lot of time taking the airlines of the world to task over their apparent lack of respect for travellers with disabilities, but they are not the only travel related industry that is seemingly paying little regard to the sector.

One of the fastest growing tourism activities is the European River Cruising phenomenon. The rivers of Europe have seen a remarkable increase in tourism traffic via the small 150 person boats largely operating between Amsterdam and Budapest. These boats have become increasingly opulent with some now firmly established in the 5 star market. Over the last two years there has been a boat building frenzy with over 20 boats in this high category added to the fleets of the major operators.

It has become so popular as, unlike the frenetic pace of the old European coach tours, this is an opportunity to view Europe as it simply floats past for 15 days. It is the relaxing way of Ocean cruising by simply unpacking once and enjoying the towns. For travellers with disabilities it would seem to be the perfect way to enjoy the best of Europe and given the modern nature of the fleet you would expect the best of accessibility.

Expectation is a dangerous thing!!!!!

The opposite is in fact true. Most of the modern boats have persisted with traditional cruising design, small cabin doors, maybe one accessible cabin in the entire boat and limited elevator access between the decks. The justification is that Europe is old, streets are cobble-stoned, accessible transport in the towns is non-existent, etc.

The real reason seems to be that the river boats are still governed by the ocean maritime rules. As such there are no design standards in force to govern accessibility or set minimum standards. The reason that has applied to ocean cruising is that the driving parameter is safety at sea. Here we have a situation of river boats operating on smooth water and operating on landlocked territorial waters being protected from anti-discrimination laws of the countries through which they pass by rules designed for the high seas.

If the same hotel was built on the land of any one of the countries they passed through they would have to comply with a raft of accessibility standards. The ocean cruising lines have started to recognise the value of the market for people with disabilities and have started to provide some very good examples on their cruise fleets. Royal Caribbean's "Rhapsody of the Seas" is one of the best examples. (View accessibility slideshow).

Avalon has just launched their new state of the art "Panorama" with its all balcony cabin layout, making it one of the best ships to operate on the rivers of Europe and yet there is not one accessible cabin.

It really is time for the European Union to close this ridiculous loophole and apply the same accessibility standards to the floating hotels as it would to built infrastructure on land. It has the power to control it through the permits the various countries grant to operate on their sectors of the waterways.

Countries like the United States and Australia, the two biggest international markets for River Cruising can also control the standards by applying anti- discrimination provisions to tours and tour operators selling within their countries.

The following is an extract of the terms and conditions applied by APT (Australian Pacific Tours) to their river cruising product. If they were airline conditions it would be front page news!!!!!

Passengers Needing Special Assistance

" The Company welcomes passengers with disabilities or special needs provided they are accompanied by two companions capable of providing all assistance required. Any disability or medical condition requiring special attention must be reported to The Company at the time of booking. The Company will make reasonable efforts to accommodate the special needs of disabled cruise participants, but is not responsible for any denial of services by carriers, hotels, restaurants or other independent suppliers, or any additional expenses incurred. Motorcoaches and minibuses are not equipped with wheelchair ramps. Not all river cruise ships have elevators. Cabin doors and restrooms are not wide enough to allow access by standard wheelchairs. Wheelchairs and walkers cannot be carried on motorcoaches, due to space limitations. Wheelchair passengers should be aware of these limitations. For safety reasons, passengers in wheelchairs cannot be carried on ramps in ports where the ship is at anchor. We regret that we cannot provide individual assistance to a passenger for walking, dining, getting on and off motorcoaches or other transportation vehicles or other personal needs."

Makes you wonder why they bother with the word "welcome" and note that two companions are required and they are still not permitted to carry anyone on the gangways.

Bill Forrester photoENAT Member, Bill Forrester owns and runs a successful travel business in Melbourne, Australia.

Visit his company website: Travability 


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1 comment(s) posted

Posted by Ambrose Ivor on 2010/08/26 - 13:10:35

Developments in EU legislation for passengers travelling by boat are summarised at this official European Commission website:
- with several downloadable documents.
The situation is still "on hold" and the introduction of a new EU Directive to protect passengers' rights may take "years" rather than months...

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