Getting a glimpse of reopened Europe on Uniworld's relaunch from Venice

VENICE — Save for the line of passengers from my Delta flight queuing up for Covid-19 tests, the airport in Rome and its runways were virtually deserted.

At the city’s main train station, there were a few obvious tourists and a respectable number of locals in the restaurants, shops and on the platforms, but nothing like the crowds you would expect to encounter on a normal summer Sunday afternoon.

And here, a city that before the pandemic had become a poster child for overtourism, the only cruise ship in port was Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ new S.S. La Venezia — the first European river ship to sail with Americans since the pandemic.

Other lines will be joining Uniworld in returning to Europe’s waterways in the weeks ahead, with limited sailings mostly on single-country itineraries like La Venezia’s Italy cruise.

As Europe slowly reopens, my trip last week hosted by Uniworld offered a first glimpse of what travel experts have for the past year been predicting for those who dare venture back out early: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Europe’s hottest destinations without the masses that had in some cases made travel almost unbearable.

Ironically, the S.S. La Venezia is Uniworld’s top-to-bottom overhaul of the River Countess, which was taken out of service for renovation earlier than planned in 2019 after it was rammed by a cruise ship as it sat docked in the busy port here.

That accident renewed calls for better tourism management, including limiting or rerouting away from the city center large cruise ships that before the pandemic brought some 32,000 people to Venice each day.

Only time will tell if the pandemic pause in global travel will bring about the changes that sustainability advocates are hoping for. But for now, it has certainly made traveling more comfortable.

Dispatch, Venice: Tourism’s slow return

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Visiting Venice

Before I arrived, I was a bit concerned that I would find Italy not just without tourists but also largely shuttered. Instead, I found a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere with plenty of local bustle.

In Venice, the city’s famed and formerly tourist-clogged canals were practically empty, although gondola captains stood at the ready to offer rides.

In St. Mark’s Square, some sidewalk cafes were open, and tables were plentiful. There were lines to enter the Doge’s Palace, though likely only because social distancing requirements limit entry numbers.

St. Mark’s Cathedral was closed to the general public, although Uniworld was able to secure a private visit for our group.

On the streets, souvenir and food vendors were all in place. Water buses and taxis were up and running, and there were enough tourists and locals on the streets and the waterfront to create the lively vibe one expects to find in a city.

And while some storefronts have been shuttered, there was plenty of shopping and dining to choose from, in a much more relaxed and uncrowded atmosphere than was even imaginable before the pandemic.

Travel in the age of Covid

While Covid restrictions are in place, they aren’t intrusive. Masks were still required in all public places, but the outdoor mask mandate was set to be dropped this week.

Onboard La Venezia, things felt surprisingly normal. Covid tests were required within 24 hours of boarding or upon arrival to the ship. All guests were tested again midcruise. Masks were required in the halls and when not seated in public spaces.

Seats were spaced on coaches to ensure social distancing. And each party was assigned one table in the dining room for the duration of the cruise. Additionally, there were no self-service food items. But really, the measures were no different than what most of us have gotten used to over the past year.

Getting here, like most travel in the age of Covid, was less than hassle-free. Although it got a lot easier just after my arrival: The day after I arrived, Italy dropped its requirement that leisure travelers arrive only on specially designated, nonstop flights from the U.S., which required pre-departure and on-arrival Covid tests.

From the snippets of conversations with people on my flight, it seemed most of the passengers on the Atlanta-Rome flight were headed to Italy for long-awaited visits with family.

But with the further easing of entry requirements both here and among other EU countries, European river operators and other travel companies have said they expect a gradual pickup in tourism over the summer and fall. 

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