American Cruise Lines is building a new Mississippi River paddlewheeler, which will set sail in August 2012.
The 140-passenger ship is under construction at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Md. It will operate on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The company would not disclose how much it is investing in the vessel.
The ship will have the look of a traditional riverboat, but will have larger cabins and public areas than the ships that were known for plying the Mississippi River, such as the Delta Queen and American Queen. It will also be faster than those ships, according to Tim Beebe, vice president of American Cruise Lines. It will include six lounges, a library, a dining salon and elevator service to all decks.
As for why the company is building its own ship rather than buying one of the vessels of the now-defunct Majestic America Line, formerly owned by Ambassadors International Inc., Beebe said those ships "just didn't meet the quality of our standards. Those ships had very small staterooms, small public areas. They were very slow. They took a very long time to get up the river, which leads them to have very limited itineraries."
The first cruise is a scheduled to depart Aug. 11, 2012, from New Orleans on a seven-night cruise up the Mississippi to Memphis. The ship will then begin a series of seven-night cruises traveling as far north as St. Paul, Minn.
Beebe said the new ship isn't launching until 2012 because of the shipyard's busy schedule.
As for the potential of the Mississippi River cruise market, Beebe said, "We believe that there was too much capacity on the Mississippi before. With the right capacity, you can be very successful operating a ship on the Mississippi. We're responding to the demand from passengers.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook ever since we announced it" Sept. 21, he added.
In November 2008, Ambassadors shut down its Majestic America Line, taking its three storied Mississippi ships -- the 176-passenger Delta Queen, the 436-passenger American Queen and the 412-passenger Mississippi Queen -- out of service.
Six weeks later, RiverBarge Excursion Lines, which operated the 196-passenger River Explorer, also ceased operations. It had been cruising the Mississippi, Cumberland, Ohio and Tennessee rivers and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana and Texas.
Since then, there has been very little river ship activity in the region. Blount Small Ship Adventures, formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line, operates the 68-passenger Niagara Prince, which in 2011 will sail three Southeastern itineraries: New Orleans to Chattanooga, Tenn.; Chattanooga to Nashville; and Nashville to Chicago.
Cruise West, which closed its doors this past weekend, had announced in June plans for two new 2011 itineraries aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of America on the Mississippi River in hopes of resuscitating the market.