Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

Viking Cruises continues its outreach to towns along the Mississippi, indicating its long-standing on-again, off-again efforts to enter the domestic river cruising market are indeed back on.

This month, the company reached an agreement with Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, under which the city will guarantee a docking port for the line whenever a Viking ship is in town. In exchange, Viking will pay the city $1 per passenger, City Manager Jeff LaGarce said.

But it looks like the company still has a long slog to entry at a time when the two dominant domestic river cruise operators, American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSB), are moving aggressively to ramp up their fleets to meet what they say is record demand.

Part of the problem is the lack of U.S, shipyards able to build river vessels - federal law that mandates that ships operating within the U.S. be built and flagged domestically and manned by U.S. crews.

American Cruise Lines owns its own shipyard, which has enabled it to begin building modern European-style vessels, one of which, the American Song, entered service last year and another, the American Harmony, slated to come on line this spring. AQSB, meantime, has focused on buying the hulls of older gambling vessels and converting them into luxury ships at a much lower cost than building a ship from scratch. Its newest vessel, the American Countess, will debut in 2020.

Despite the barriers to entry, Viking says it remains focused on expanding here, although a spokesman declined to give any other details on where and when its ships would actually be built.

While the Mississippi River towns get excited when Viking, the world's largest river cruise operator and one known for its strong marketing muscle, comes calling, none of the other global players seem inclined to follow suit.

Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, has said the company has looked at the domestic market but has no plans to make a play. Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, says any of his company's expansion plans beyond Europe are focused on more exotic locales.

Viking first announced plans for domestic operations in 2015, saying it planned to have six ships in operation by 2017. By 2017, however, there were reports from Mississippi port towns that those plans were being scrapped.

Viking reaffirmed its commitment to the domestic market last year. But the start date keeps moving down the line. According to information LaGarce received from Viking, it appears Viking's maiden voyage on the Mississippi won't come until 2021 or 2022.

LaGarce says Viking's plans, which he admits are a bit dated, still call for the line to have six ships making 19 excursions each between July 1 and Oct. 31 of each year. The plans he has seen, he says, indicate they will carry 338 passengers.

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