Opportunity along America’s riverbanks

Last week’s announcement that Viking River Cruises is planning to build six new vessels for the Mississippi River signaled more than just continued growth of the river cruise industry: The move opens up additional economic opportunities for the communities along America’s most fabled inland waterways.

In Europe, the booming river cruise industry contributes about $1.1 billion in passenger revenue to Western European economies annually, according IG River Cruise, an association of river cruise lines based in Basel, Switzerland.

Imagine if the small and large towns along the Mississippi River began to see even a fraction of that contribution?

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

In fact, they have already been experiencing a boost. The cities on the banks of the Mississippi River System have been witnessing something of a tourism economy revival since Mississippi River cruising was resurrected in 2012 with the relaunch of the 436-passenger American Queen and the christening of American Cruise Lines’ 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi.

For instance, when the Great American Steamboat Co. decided to make Memphis the homeport of the American Queen in 2012, the deal created 250 new jobs as well as the promise of $1.5 million in annual taxes and fees to Memphis, 10,000 filled hotel rooms each year and $90 million in annual economic impact for the city, the Memphis-based Riverfront Development Corp., which was overseeing the revival of the city’s waterfront, projected during the relaunch of the American Queen.

And Louisiana is hoping that the addition of not just one, but six new Viking vessels that will call New Orleans home will indeed give its tourism economy — which has been making significant recovery strides since Hurricane Katrina — yet another bump. Viking’s new venture is expected to result in the creation of 416 new jobs for Louisiana-based operations and crews, and an additional 368 new indirect jobs, for a total of more than 780 new jobs in southeast Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Economic Development (LED).

“Viking’s project will generate major opportunities for our citizens, boost our tourism industry, and continue to turbocharge the Port of New Orleans,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in a statement.

With Viking’s plans to build six vessels on the Mississippi, starting with two in 2017, and American Cruise Lines having unveiled its own ambitious strategy to begin building a fleet of modern river cruise vessels alongside its existing and forthcoming paddlewheelers, the Mississippi is about to see a significant increase in capacity.

And according to Bruce Nierenberg, CEO of United Caribbean Lines, who served as president of former Mississippi River heavyweight the Delta Queen Steamboat Co., that could mean awesome opportunities for the smaller towns along the rivers if they work together with the river cruise lines to really develop interesting and innovating on-shore experiences and programs and highlight this country’s culture and heritage.

“I hope that Viking and the others really start to spend a lot of time developing the stories in the cities and the towns [along the Mississippi],” said Nierenberg. “There’s a tremendous amount of relationship between the birth of this country and the river. If you can really tap into that … there’s an opportunity there.”

As to whether U.S. river cruising can ultimately be as successful as European river cruising, Nierenberg said, why not?

“There are no Vienna opera houses on the Mississippi,” said Nierenberg, “but there are a lot of things that you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world.”