Queen of the MississippiLooking out at the bend in the Mississippi that gives New Orleans its Crescent City nickname, it's hard to imagine that this riverfront once saw thousands of passengers embarking on cruise journeys up the Mississippi, every year.

The city's overall cruise traffic has boomed over the last few years, thanks to a record number of oceangoing ships, operated by companies such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line, that now sail regularly from New Orleans.

Before this year, however, river cruising had become an afterthought here, especially since 2008 and the demise of Majestic America Line, whose three boats, the American Queen, Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, departed regularly from here.

So it came as big news when a very small ship, the 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, set off on its inaugural Mississippi River cruise from here earlier this month. The ship was the first newly built paddlewheeler to sail the Mississippi in 17 years and the second paddlewheeler to depart on a cruise from New Orleans in four years.

Three months prior, on April 13, the revitalized 436-passenger American Queen paddlewheeler set sail from here on its first cruise, as well, officially ending the city's four-year river cruise dry spell.

Both vessels are currently sailing upriver but will be returning to New Orleans in November and will be joined by some nonriver cruise lines.

Blount Small Ship Adventures will operate some Mississippi cruises to and from New Orleans this year and next on the 96-passenger Grande Caribe, and Travel Dynamics International will begin operating the 138-passenger Yorktown on Mississippi itineraries, also in November.

For New Orleans, even these small vessels can mean a big return.

Passengers and crew on ships embarking in New Orleans spent about $35.9 million during 2010, according to statistics provided by the Port of New Orleans.

And a recent tourism study of the port found that the average cruise passenger departing here spends 1.8 nights. In 2011, a record year for New Orleans cruising with 723,918 passengers, that might have meant record spending on pre- and post-cruise activities: Crew members and passengers spent an average of about $138 per person, 5% higher than the national average, according to the New Orleans Conventions and Visitors Bureau.

Despite being a small slice of that, river cruise passengers will add to those numbers and revive a tourism segment. (See related story, "Sampling music, dining and history in New Orleans.") 

"We value every person that comes to the city," said Kelly Schulz, vice president of public relations and communications for the New Orleans Conventions and Visitors Bureau. "The riverboats are a new attraction for us to sell. It's a great story and something fresh and new to market about the city."

For many, that story represents a return to the city's roots.

Toots Maloy, a "riverlorian" traveling for a month on the Queen of the Mississippi, said that this four-year hiatus represented the longest break in more than 200 years for river cruising on the Mississippi.

"Even during the Civil War the ships were running," she said.

Port of New OrleansMaloy said that in its pre-Civil War heyday, there were about 1,200 to 1,500 river steamboats sailing in and out of New Orleans every year. At any given time their smokestacks, some quite ornate as a way to attract passengers, choked the river bend fronting what is now the Port of New Orleans.

On the Queen of the Mississippi, some crewmembers said they were excited to be back on the Mississippi.

Kenny Williams, the American Queen's pilot, had 40 years of experience guiding ships on the river and said, "I'm still enjoying it."

Capt. John Ayer, who had once been at the helm of the Delta Queen, was thrilled that river cruising here was being revived.

"It's exciting to go to new places, but it's nice to be back," he said. "It's a wonderful change. It's like coming home. I love the people here, and the folks that work on the river are the heart and soul of this area."

Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw.

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