Air, ferry and train traffic between Germany and Russia is currently suspended. The sanctions of the European Union have not only isolated Putin's gigantic empire, Mongolia and China can no longer be reached by rail cruisers via the Transsib. What alternatives are there for adventurous train travelers? We spoke to Andreas Zahn, manager at Ameropa Reisen. In addition to Lernidee Erlebnisreisen and DNV Touristik, the organizer is a proven rail specialist.
WORLD: There is much to suggest that Transsib trips from Germany will be history for a long time. If you don't want to put up with it at all - could this someone book at least a section of the Trans-Siberian route within Russia or between Russia and Mongolia?
Andreas Zahn: No, that doesn't make sense, if only because of the question of how to get to Russia in the first place. We do not even offer trips on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, which is a branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Ulan-Ude in Russia via Ulaan Baatar in Mongolia to Beijing in China. If you absolutely want to experience this route, you can of course fly to Ulaan Baatar and from there take the Trans-Mongolian Railway to China.
WORLD: And you can get the tickets for it from you?
Zahn: We specialize in rail cruises, i.e. chartered train journeys with a guide or scheduled train journeys without a guide, but with overnight stays in hotels along the route and various excursions. Therefore we do not offer tickets for these railways as individual modules. Our offer is based on the respective demand - this currently includes neither the Trans-Siberian nor the Trans-Mongolian Railway.
WORLD: Sometimes inquiries arise suddenly, for example when a destination or a train route receives the World Heritage title, such as the Trans-Iranian Railway in 2021.
Zahn: It won't happen that quickly, especially since the surprising title award to Iran fell during the pandemic and other topics dominated the media at the time. That's just my guess, but it fits in with the fact that our customers aren't currently asking about trips on the Trans-Iranian Railway because they don't seem to have the track that connects the Caspian Sea with the Persian Gulf on their radar.
WORLD: Nevertheless, one more question about this region: Are there routes in Israel and in the Arab region, for example in Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, that your customers can combine into a rail cruise, because Ameropa also offers modular trips?
Zahn: We actually flirted with combined trips to Israel and Jordan, but decided against it last year - also because of Corona. However, I suspect that these targets will appear in the Ameropa portfolio in the not too distant future.
WORLD: What are your customers currently interested in?
Zahn: Above all for trips within Europe, for the sustainable arrival and departure with Deutsche Bahn to the start and end points and especially for Switzerland. In 2021, the Alpine country achieved a booking increase of 15 percent compared to the pre-pandemic year 2019.
WORLD: Despite the strong Swiss franc?
Zahn: Switzerland has its price, but it offers an unbelievable number of impressive panoramas, high-quality products and experiences. Rail cruises belong to the luxury segment in the travel industry; Anyone who is interested in this usually does not have to look at the cent. Whether the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Belmond Royal Scotsman, the Al Ándalus or the El Transcáantábrico Gran Lujo - all these train legends offer very special "once in a lifetime" experiences and are correspondingly expensive.
WORLD: Do you also have offers for the smaller purse?
Zahn: When it comes to chartered rail cruises, like the luxury trains I just mentioned, probably not. Our new Bahn-Wandern product is cheaper because it is based on scheduled trains. With this decelerated type of travel, holidaymakers hike part of the way and always switch to the train between tours.
WORLD: Can you give an example?
Zahn: The offer of train hiking in the Harz Mountains, for example, is perfect for the Advent season. The four-day trip includes rides on the Brockenbahn and Harzquerbahn, both of which can be combined with hikes at the stops. The day tours start and end in Wernigerode. Tickets and three hotel nights with half board for this trip cost from 325 euros per person.
However, the absolute top sellers in the rail-hiking segment by scheduled train are tours with the Swiss railways and with the Norwegian Bergen and Flåm Railway. Customers who have taken a train tour with us in Scandinavia said afterwards that this was the next big thing.
WORLD: Rail cruises can only be done where there are rails. Is that the reason why there are hardly any offers for Africa apart from Rovos Rail in South Africa?
Zahn: Yes, you could say that, but the building frenzy of the Chinese is changing a lot, which means that you can now discover a number of African countries from the train. The Madaraka Express in Kenya, for example, travels from Mombasa to Nairobi in just over five hours, and the Tanzania-Zambia Railway company operates the route from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia. Wildlife sightings are common along this route.
WORLD: Can you buy tickets for these trains via Ameropa?
Zahn: In Africa, as well as in all other destinations, we currently do not offer an option for "only" train tickets, the only exception to this rule is for the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express. The reason for this is Ameropa's concept of always combining trips with hotel accommodation and excursions.
If you want to experience half of Africa with our expertise, you can take the Rovos Rail from Cape Town in South Africa to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, an unforgettable tour that leads through Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana and comes very close to a safari on rails. Another option is a Rovos Rail trip from Angola to Victoria Falls. In general, there are a number of tours through southern Africa, but always with Rovos Rail and therefore not exactly cheap.
WORLD: You emphasize southern Africa, in the north of the huge continent there is nothing comparable?
Zahn: In North Africa, we actually have two new trips in the program for the coming year: A guided private trip on regular Moroccan TGV trains from/to Casablanca with stops in Rabat, Tangier and Fes, and a special train trip on the Oriental Desert Express that, in addition to Casablanca , Fez, Tangier and Rabat also includes stops in Marrakech and Agadir.
WORLD: Another look overseas, are rail cruisers better to travel there with the regular or with the special train?
Zahn: The Rocky Mountaineer is the measure of all things for crossing Canada – it is purely a tourist train. Since otherwise only freight trains run on this route, only the Rocky Mountaineer can be booked.
It's different in the USA, Mexico and Cuba, which means that there are many scheduled trains as in Europe. Overseas, however, the procurement of tickets and often also the coordination of travel times is not entirely uncomplicated, so it is definitely advisable to book these trips with an experienced tour operator.
WORLD: What should travelers who are interested in a rail cruise know and consider?
Zahn: Some luxury trains have a certain dress code that fellow passengers should adhere to. While most train passengers can be dressed casually during the day, formal attire is common in the evenings. So if you are traveling on a luxury train, it is best to find out before you travel which dress code applies on the selected train, in order to be on the safe side.
Also not unimportant: Due to the often narrow aisles in the trains and the many exploration tours on site, almost all rail cruises are unfortunately not recommended for people with restricted mobility.
Andreas Zahn is Head of Sales
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