The European river boom has officially landed stateside. Viking River Cruises made a bona fide entry into the U.S. river cruising market last week with plans to launch six modern river cruise vessels on the Mississippi River starting in 2017.

Viking first teased the idea of launching Mississippi cruises in 2013, when the company proposed bringing a version of its latest European river vessels, the 190-passenger Viking Longships, to the U.S.

Though the company did not provide any concrete design details for its forthcoming U.S. vessels, Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen did suggest that the Mississippi vessels would be a more modern concept than the traditional Mississippi paddlewheeler.

In order to enter the U.S. river cruise market, Viking needed to find a way to build and operate ships in this country in compliance with the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, a cabotage law that was updated with the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (the “Jones Act”). The law states that no foreign vessel may transport passengers directly between ports or places in the U.S. unless the vessel was built in the U.S. and is wholly owned and crewed by U.S. citizens.

The first two vessels are scheduled to deploy in 2017, with an additional two scheduled to launch in each of the following two years. The vessels will carry up to 300 passengers.

Last week, the company announced that it has done just that. The vessels will be owned by Los Angeles-based investment management firm Tennenbaum Capital Partners and will be time-chartered to Viking in compliance with U.S. maritime laws. The six vessels will be built in U.S. shipyards (Viking has not said which) at a cost of $90 million to $100 million per vessel, and they will be crewed by U.S. citizens.

The first two vessels are scheduled to deploy in 2017, with an additional two scheduled to launch in each of the following two years. The vessels will carry up to 300 passengers.

Hagen “is going to take his proven model in Europe and bring it here,” said Bruce Nierenberg, CEO of United Caribbean Lines, who served as president of former Mississippi River heavyweight the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

Viking is the biggest player in European river cruising right now. With the 12 additional vessels Viking is launching in Europe this year, the company will have introduced 46 vessels in four years on the continent.

“European river cruising was a cottage industry, and now it’s exploding,” Nierenberg said, adding that there is no reason the same thing couldn’t happen here.

Viking’s new cruises will sail up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, which will serve as the company’s homeport here in the U.S.

According to the Louisiana Economic Development department, the new venture is expected to result in the creation of more than 780 jobs in southeast Louisiana: 416 jobs for Louisiana-based operations and crews and an additional 368 indirect jobs.

The new project was finalized after Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Hagen met at Viking’s operational headquarters in Switzerland last month to discuss the project. To seal the deal, Louisiana offered Viking an incentive package that includes a $4.5 million performance-based grant for site preparation at the company’s docking locations in New Orleans.

The news comes just one month after American Cruise Lines (ACL) unveiled its own ambitious strategy to begin building a fleet of modern river cruise vessels alongside its existing and forthcoming paddlewheelers. In April, ACL will launch its second Mississippi paddlewheeler, the 150-passenger American Eagle, which will join the company’s 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi and the refurbished Columbia River paddlewheeler Queen of the West as well as four yacht-style coastal cruisers: the Independence, American Star, American Spirit and American Glory.

Following the launch of one more new paddlewheeler on the Columbia and Snake rivers in 2016, ACL has said it will launch the first two of its newer style of vessels in 2017, then ramp up construction from there. ACL President Charles Robertson has said that the new vessels won’t look like European-style river cruise ships or like traditional paddlewheelers.

The Hernando de Soto Bridge spans the Mississippi River from Memphis to West Memphis, Ark.
The Hernando de Soto Bridge spans the Mississippi River from Memphis to West Memphis, Ark. Photo Credit: Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

“It will be a new look,” Robertson told Travel Weekly last month. ACL is exploring destinations beyond the Mississippi, Colombia and Snake rivers, as well, including the Sacramento River, Missouri River, Des Moines River, Illinois River, the Erie Canal, Hudson River and Alaska’s Inside Passage.

Despite all the plans for added capacity on U.S. rivers, American Queen Steamboat Co., which owns and operates the 436-passenger American Queen on the Mississippi and the 223-passenger American Empress on the Columbia and Snake rivers, predicted there would be enough business for all the lines.

Ted Sykes, president and COO of American Queen, said of the Viking announcement, “We welcome the competition and any development that continues to put the spotlight on U.S. river cruising.”

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI