Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

Several months ago, Viking River Cruises quietly admitted that it is going to have to delay its much-hyped plans to enter the Mississippi river cruise market until 2018. Viking had initially announced plans last spring to launch six modern river cruise vessels on the Mississippi River starting with two next year.

It isn’t like Viking to back down from ambitious plans. So what gives? Well, as it turns out, building river cruise ships in the U.S. is an entirely different beast than building them in Europe.

Viking definitely knows how to churn them out in Europe, where Viking’s partner, the Neptun Werft shipyard in Germany, has been a key to Viking’s impressive growth there, keeping pace with Viking’s rapid-pace ship orders. But in order to build river cruise ships in the U.S. market, Viking needs to be in compliance with the Jones Act, which states that in order for a vessel to transport passengers directly between U.S. ports, the vessel must be built in the U.S. and wholly owned and crewed by U.S. citizens.

The only company currently churning out newly built river cruise vessels here is American Cruise Lines, and that’s because the company has proprietary access to the Chesapeake Shipbuilding shipyard in Salisbury, Md., where all its riverboats are built. 

The other players in the market, American Queen Steamboat Co. and, more recently, French America Line, have simply refurbished existing vessels. If Viking is going to start building river cruise ships in the U.S., it is going to have to find a shipyard that can do it and can do it at a decent cost in order to keep its U.S. river cruise pricing at the same competitive value it offers in Europe.

Not long after Viking chairman Torstein Hagen and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal announced Viking’s enthusiastic plans for the Mississippi last spring, which included making New Orleans the company’s homeport, local publication The Louisiana Weekly reported that Jindal had claimed that the Viking riverboats would be constructed in the state, likely at the Bollinger Shipyards, and that they would be ready to launch in the next couple of years.

“The process may take longer than Jindal had suggested at his initial press conference,”  the Louisiana Weekly reported last April.

Until Viking finds the right partner or partners to execute on its Mississippi aspirations, all we have are specs of what those aspirations might ultimately look like: Longshipesque vessels that will carry up to 300 passengers each as well as the possibility of bringing a bit more of the European river cruise boom home to the U.S.


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