When Ambassadors International put its U.S. river cruise
business on the block, the move stalled domestic river cruising for four years.
But a decade later, several players are breathing new life and profitability
into a product that had all but disappeared.
As a result, by the end of this year, U.S. river cruising
will have grown from essentially no vessels in 2012 to 10, with plans for even
more expansion in the coming years.
"I think [U.S. river cruising has] always worked; it
just really depends on who's running the show," said Capt. Joseph Baer,
founder, president and CEO of the Covington, Ky.-based Grand Majestic River Co.
Grand Majestic recently purchased the former casino boat
Diamond Lady and is investing "many millions" to convert it into a
70-passenger, overnight paddle-wheeler that will launch in September.
"We're a riverboat company," Baer said. "Everybody
that's involved with this project comes from the river. ... We're not
interested in trying to expand out and become deep-sea cruising. We're making
sure that we keep our eye on the ball. We're river people. We know how to show
people the river."
Grand Majestic will sail the Ohio and Mississippi rivers as
well as several smaller tributaries, with the goal of ultimately doing cruises
to Omaha, Neb.; Sioux City, Iowa; Charleston, W.Va.; and the outskirts of
Chicago, with the vessel's smaller size enabling it to pass under bridges and
sail shallower waters than its competitors.
Grand Majestic is the latest entrant into a market that has
continued to grow for the past several years despite the massive hurdles it ran
into in the past, including financial shortfalls and technical challenges. It
follows French America Line, which launched last year after purchasing the
former Columbia Queen and transforming it into the 150-passenger Louisiane.
Prior to that, the two main players restoking the market had
been the American Queen Steamboat Co. and American Cruise Lines, both of which
have been adding -- and continue to add -- capacity to their U.S. river fleets
Last year, American Queen purchased a former gaming vessel
that it is gutting and converting into the all-suite American Duchess, which,
when it launches in August, will be the third vessel in the company's river
The relaunch of the company's flagship vessel, the American
Queen, in 2012, marked the rebirth of the Mississippi River cruise industry, resurrecting
a business that had gone dormant.
One year later, the company purchased the former Empress of
the North and converted it into the Pacific Northwest paddle-wheeler American
American Cruise Lines, too, has been steadily building up
its U.S. river fleet. Unlike its competitors, which are buying existing vessels
and refurbishing them, American Cruise Lines has been building its own boats at
Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Md.
To date, American Cruise Lines has built three Mississippi
paddle-wheelers, the most recent of which was the 185-passenger America, which
launched last year.
The company also owns and operates the refurbished Columbia
River paddle-wheeler Queen of the West as well as three yacht-style coastal
cruisers: the Independence, American Star and American Spirit.
The company has announced ambitious plans to develop a fleet
of five modern riverboats for U.S. rivers. The first will be a 200-passenger
vessel that the company has said will not be a paddle-wheeler but rather will
feature "the modern styling of a European riverboat." It is slated to
enter service on the Mississippi in fall 2018, followed by a Pacific Northwest
vessel in 2019.
Also in the Pacific Northwest, UnCruise Adventures sails the
88-passenger Legacy on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
And then there is the Delaware-based Delta Queen Steamboat
Co., which is rallying to resurrect the historical 88-passenger paddle-wheeler
Delta Queen. It purchased the vessel from Xanterra Parks & Resorts in 2015
and is still lobbying for a congressional exemption for the Delta Queen from
fire safety laws. Built in 1926, the vessel currently cannot sail because it
has a wooden superstructure.
European river cruise giant Viking River Cruises, too, has
teased plans to enter the U.S. river market.
Suddenly, only five years after the U.S. river cruise market
was resurrected from the dead, it has become a diverse and dynamic marketplace.
"There are many factors contributing to the popularity
of the U.S. [river cruise] business," said Ted Sykes, president and COO of
Sykes noted that the sudden rise of U.S. river cruising
falls in line with the growth of the river cruising industry in general, which
has been driven by a small-ship experience that resonates with customers and by
a baby boomer demographic that is interested in "learning" vacations.
He added that U.S. river cruising in particular benefits
from those passengers who prefer to travel closer to home to avoid the
frustrations of long-haul air travel or who are concerned about medical care or
general security elsewhere in the world.
All told, Sykes said, "U.S. river cruises are selling
briskly. We can't speak for the other operators, but American Queen Steamboat
Co. space is largely selling out. There is ample room for growth. Current
passenger carry on U.S. rivers is a sliver of the international carry."