New ships mean new port calls in the U.S.

Image result for grand majestic paddlewheel steamer

Sure, it may not be growing as aggressively or rapidly as the European river cruise market, but the U.S. river cruise industry continues to see a steady number of new vessels being launched each year, the latest being a passion project of Cincinnati native Capt. Joseph Baer.

And while it’s always exciting to see new vessels coming online, to get the first sneak peeks at interior renderings and to witness the ways in which different companies are interpreting the U.S. river cruise experience onboard, what some of these new vessels symbolize is more than just new hardware; some are promising to take U.S. river passengers on entirely new river routes and new ports.

For instance, the 70-passenger paddlewheeler Grand Majestic, being launched by Baer’s Grand Majestic River Co. this fall, will reportedly be able to sail along some smaller inland waterways due to its shorter height and shallower draft. Baer said that the smaller size of the Grand Majestic means it can clear some bridges and sail in shallower waters that will enable it to cruise to or near Tulsa, Okla.; Omaha, Neb.; Sioux City, Iowa; Charleston, W.Va.; and into the outskirts of Chicago by next year.

American Cruise Lines, too, has said that it plans to look into some new and different waterways in the U.S. as it develops a fleet of five more modern riverboats for the U.S. market. The first two of those are slated to hit the more traditional Mississippi River System and the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest, but the company has previously said that it has its eye on numerous additional waterways, including the Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, Missouri River, Des Moines River, Wabash River, Illinois River, Apalachicola River, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Mid-Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Erie Canal, Hudson River, Oswego Canal, Potomac River and Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Hopefully the trend will continue. Because while everyone wants to see places like New Orleans, Memphis and Portland, Ore., when it comes to U.S. river cruising, there is clearly still a fair amount of untapped potential in terms of where to go and what to see.

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ACL’s first ‘modern’ Paddlewheeler to launch in 2019

Image result for American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines (ACL) has pushed back the expected launch of its more modern fleet of river cruise vessels by two years, to 2019.

Last year, when ACL first laid out plans for a fleet of modern ships for American rivers, they were slated to begin launching in 2017. This month, ACL said that construction is under way on the first of those riverboats, but that it is now expected to debut in 2019. The steel is currently being fabricated for what the company described as a “modern” paddlewheeler that will carry approximately 195 passengers.

ACL did not provide any additional details about the new vessel, such as where it will sail, but did say that it is being built with the standards of European river cruising in mind and “with a level of comfort unprecedented on the American rivers.”

Timothy Beebe, vice president of ACL, said in a statement that by “continually designing and building brand new ships”, the company was able to increase the quality of its product.

Earlier this year, American Cruise Lines launched its eighth ship, the 185-passenger Mississippi paddlewheeler, the America.

ACL has also begun construction on two new coastal cruise ships, with the first expected to launch in May 2017, and the second in 2018.

A rendering of the American Constellation.

American Cruise Lines said it has two new coastal ships under construction that will carry 170 passengers each.

The first ship, the American Constellation, is expected to begin cruising in May. The second ship, yet unnamed, is scheduled for completion in 2018.

The summer inaugural season will be devoted to a new 10-night round-trip itinerary from Boston to destinations including Bar Harbor, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Both ships are being built at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Md., which is affiliated with American Cruise Lines. The design includes marbled tile bathrooms and large sliding glass doors in each cabin. 

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.”