Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

Competition is heating up on the Mississippi as Viking River Cruises prepares to follow through on years of talk about entering the domestic market alongside American Cruise Lines (ACL) and the American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC).

Viking this week sent invites for an April 7 event in New Orleans, where it says chairman Torstein Hagen will officially reveal "the introduction of modern river cruising in the U.S."

It's an interesting choice of words, given that American Cruise Lines, the largest U.S. cruise company, has already launched a series of modern river ships.

The American Song, one of American Cruise Lines' first three modern riverboats.
The American Song, one of American Cruise Lines' first three modern riverboats.

ACL's modern riverboats first set sail in 2018, and the company is sailing three of the vessels this year, two on the Mississippi and one on the Snake and Columbia rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Two more are set to join the fleet next year under what CEO Charles. B. Robertson said is an accelerated buildout of the fleet. 

Viking reportedly will start sailing its first U.S. vessel in 2022.

Robertson joked that Viking must have missed the launch of his company's modern ships, which joined its four more traditional paddlewheelers plying U.S. rivers. The company also operates small-ship coastal cruises.

Regardless, Robertson said, there is plenty of opportunity.

"We do think there is a lot of room for everybody," Robertson said. "Our production timeline has been based on what we see in the market and demand for it. It's not a reaction to the competition. We believe so much in the U.S. river cruise market and the huge potential for it."

AQSC chairman and CEO John Waggoner said he believes Viking will bring additional exposure to the inland waterways of the U.S., which should benefit all current operators.

Indeed, ACL and AQSC have reported booming demand in recent years for their domestic river cruises. ACL said this week that sales during the first-quarter Wave season surpassed expectations and broke records in almost all categories. The company said it was unclear if any of the increased demand was due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, but the company did at the end of last year launch a "cruise closer to home" advertising campaign.

AQSC is adding a fourth ship, a restored paddlewheeler called the American Countess, to its fleet in April. But Waggoner has said he is not in a rush to add more riverboats, focusing instead on small-ship cruising after the company purchased Victory Cruise Lines.

Other lines have resisted entering the domestic market in part because of the high costs associated with federal laws requiring that all ships be built in the U.S. and staffed by Americans.

The entrance of a new competitor appears to already be paying off for towns along the Mississippi.

ACL and Viking in the past few weeks have reached agreements with cities to help develop new docks and better port infrastructure in return for preferred docking rights when their ships are in town. ACL this month announced it has signed a 20-year lease with the city of Vicksburg, Miss., while the City Council in Dubuque, Iowa, last week unanimously approved an agreement with Viking for the construction of a nearly $1.8 million dock.

Robertson said the agreements are a natural offshoot of expansion on the Mississippi.

"The docking agreements are a way for us to invest back in the communities," he said, noting they are making 100-plus stops a year in some towns. "What you're really starting to see is a significant investment in these towns."

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