With the launch of two paddlewheelers on the Mississippi River System this year, the cities and towns that dot the riverbanks are anxiously preparing for the boost in visitors, and visitor spend, the vessels will bring.

According to Sally Durkin, media liaison for the Natchez (Miss.) Convention and Visitors Bureau, "The return of the American Queen to the Mississippi River is a huge boon for Natchez in that it brings back an average of $50,000 per docking into the local economy, monies we have certainly missed."

Last month, the Great American Steamboat Co. relaunched the 436-passenger American Queen, and in August, American Cruise Lines is launching a newly built, 150-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, bringing back to life a Mississippi River cruise market that had slowed to just a trickle of vessels.

Baton Rouge, La., for instance, reports that with the two new vessels, there will be four river cruise lines docking there this year, with a total of 26 stops scheduled in Baton Rouge between April 19 and Jan. 2.

Mississippi River ports mapIn addition to the American Queen and Queen of the Mississippi, Blount Small Ship Adventures has a couple of Mississippi departures on its 96-passenger Grande Caribe, and Travel Dynamics International is operating the 138-passenger Yorktown on some Mississippi itineraries. (Click on the map, left, for a full view of the ports along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.) 

"We have been working directly with all four vessels to ensure that passengers have unique tour options and a memorable vacation focused on our culture and history," said Katie Guasco, senior sales manager at Visit Baton Rouge. "The return of cruise ships to our area will have direct economic impact as these visitors experience our attractions, sample our cuisine and shop."

Guasco noted that the former Majestic America Line ships the American Queen, Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen all used to dock in Baton Rouge. They represented visitors and revenue the city has missed since Majestic ceased operations in 2008.

Then there's Memphis, the homeport of the refurbished American Queen.

"Memphis is going through a river renaissance," said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The arrival of the American Queen's passengers gives Memphis a new opportunity," Kane added.

Indeed, the American Queen is only one part of a larger, longer-term plan Memphis has engaged in to reinvigorate its waterfront.

"The city of Memphis has a storied history regarding its relationship to the Mississippi River," the Memphis-based Riverfront Development Corp. wrote on its website. "During the last 50 years, however, the city has lost its reliance on the river for commerce and transportation. ... Recently, in the last two decades, the city has begun to turn itself around, reorienting toward the river."

A room at GracelandAs part of that reorientation, the Riverfront Development Corp. is building a new docking facility, the Beale Street Landing, to accommodate the influx of Mississippi River ships, including the American Queen. The company is planning to unveil the dock this summer, and in December or January it will open the doors to the Beale Street Landing's interior facilities and parks.

When the Great American Steamboat Co. decided to dock at the Beale Street Landing and establish its headquarters in downtown Memphis, the deal created 250 new jobs as well as the promise of $1.5 million in yearly taxes and fees to Memphis, 10,000 filled hotel rooms each year and $90 million in annual economic impact for the city, according to the Riverfront Development Corp.

Kevin Kern, director of public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises, said the company worked with the American Queen to make Graceland one of the vessel's shore excursions, and it partnered with the Great American Steamboat Co. to do an Elvis-themed cruise in November.

"We're known for blues, barbecue and Elvis, and now folks will know us for the river, as well," Kern said. "There would be no Memphis without the Mississippi."

Hidden river gems

Of course, Memphis is among the better-known stops along the Mississippi, Tennessee, Cumberland, Ohio, Arkansas and Missouri rivers. Other popular ports include New Orleans, Nashville, St. Louis and Minneapolis/St. Paul. But there are also many smaller port towns for which the river vessels represent a significant opportunity for increased exposure and visitation.

Here are a few towns along the Mississippi River System that many people may not have heard of, and perhaps river cruise passengers wouldn't have thought to visit were they not ports of call on some of the ships' itineraries.

••••••  

Port: Alton, Ill.
Est.: 1837
Population: 28,000

"In Alton, travelers will land in the historic downtown entertainment district alongside Illinois' first riverboat casino," said Brett Stawar, president and CEO of the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Abe Lincoln statue, Alton, Ill.Alton has many ties to Abraham Lincoln, and the city's Lincoln & Civil War Legacy Trail connects 10 historical sites related to Lincoln and the Civil War. Among them are the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates; a site where Lincoln was to have fought a duel with James Shields, who would go on to serve in the U.S. Senate (the duel was called off at the last minute); Smallpox Island, site of a military prison during the Civil War; and the National Cemetery and Confederate Cemetery.

History buffs can also head to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, National Trail Site No. 1 on the Lewis & Clark Trail, a museum dedicated to the Illinois portion of the legendary explorers' journey.

Also, Alton is along the 33-mile Meeting of the Great Rivers Byway, where the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers converge.

"You would be really surprised at all there is to see and do in the Alton region," Stawar said. "From the history of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, to haunted houses, the folktale of the flying bird that devoured men, the birthplace of the tallest man ever recorded and the breathtaking view of the mighty Mississippi River flowing past the bluffs, Alton's full of many treasures."

The Alton CVB hopes American Queen passengers will be pleasantly surprised by this stop on their itinerary, as the vessel presents great economic opportunity for the town. "With its arrival, we estimate a conservative $20,000 economic impact for its one-night stay," Stawar said.

 ••••••

Port:Paducah, Ky.
Est.: 1856
Population: 25,000

National Quilt Museum quiltAmong the must-see sites in the town of Paducah are the Lloyd Tilghman House & Civil War Museum, the River Discovery Center and the National Quilt Museum. The National Quilt Museum, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, houses quilts from 46 states and 16 countries.

The ships that stop in Paducah will offer an optional excursion tour of the town, explained Fowler Black, sales director for the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Foot traffic in Paducah's historic downtown and among its merchants and restaurants is what it's all about," Black said.

To help entice passengers off the boats and into downtown locations, the CVB is offering Wow Factor Tours, which include guided excursions to hands-on workshops in studios within Paducah's Lower Town Arts District, and behind-the-scenes tours of the Carson Center for the Performing Arts, according to Black.

••••••  

Port:Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Est.: 1808
Population: 37,000

"Cape Girardeau has long been a port of call, welcoming visitors to the western bank of the mighty Mississippi River, dating back to the glory days of the steamboat era," said Chuck Martin, executive director of the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Riverfront District, Historic Downtown Cape Girardeau, Mo."The riverboats bring a genuine excitement and energy to Cape Girardeau's Riverfront Park as people from throughout southeast Missouri and southern Illinois turn out to see these riverboats that are reminiscent of a bygone age," added Martin.

According to Martin, there are two must-sees for American Queen and Queen of the Mississippi passengers who call in Cape Girardeau. The Mississippi River Tales Mural covers nearly 18,000 square feet, and at 1,100 feet long, it spans the length of the historical downtown shopping district. It features 24 arched panels that tell the Cape Girardeau story.

Also, the town is home to the Crisp Museum, located in the Cultural Arts Center at Southeast Missouri State University's River Campus. The museum houses a collection of Native American artifacts, including many Mississippian ceramics.

"As passengers have disembarked from many a different vessel over the years, these guests to our community have not only spent time wandering in and out of the many shops and boutiques in our historic Riverfront District, they have spent money in those stores, as well," said Martin.

"In 2012, we're excited to have the opportunity to extend a warm welcome to those visitors that will be cruising aboard the American Queen and the Queen of the Mississippi."

For news on river cruising, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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