As demand for river cruises grows globally, U.S. river operators are adding ships and extending their seasons. Still, they say, the market is growing so fast they can't keep up.

This month, American Cruise Lines launched its first modern European-style river ship in the U.S., sailing at 100% capacity from New Orleans to Memphis. 

The 184-passenger American Song, which the company boasts has the largest staterooms and most modern amenities in the industry, is sold out through the end of the season. A company spokeswoman said that has forced American Cruise Lines to forgo the traditional previews for travel agents at least until its sister ship, the American Harmony, joins the fleet next spring.

Likewise, the American Queen Steamboat Co. just signed a deal to build its fourth paddlewheeler, and a spokesman for Viking, which operates 65 river ships across Asia, Egypt and Europe, including Russia, said it continues with efforts to enter the booming U.S. market.

"We're introducing new boats as fast we can get them in service," said Ted Sykes, president and COO of American Queen Steamboat Co. "I would say we can't keep up with demand, which is kind of a nice place to be in. And it's not just us." 

He pointed to growth at American Cruise Lines, the other major player in the domestic river cruise industry, adding, "And Viking is desperate to get into the act if they can make things work. They have plans to come in big."

The problem, he said, is that the Jones Act, which regulates maritime commerce in the U.S., requires that all goods shipped between U.S. ports be transported on ships that are built, owned and operated by United States citizens or permanent residents. And there just aren't that many shipyards in the country that build river cruise ships.

Last month, American Queen signed a deal with the Gulf Island shipyard in Louisiana to build its newest ship, a 245-passenger paddlewheeler, using the hull of a former gaming vessel it purchased last year.

At the time, American Queen Steamboat Co. CEO John Waggoner said the company continues to "break sales records, and incredible demand remains for more capacity on the river, with each of our boats continuing to sail full."

Similarly, American Cruise Line said demand is growing "exponentially" for its fleet of small ships and river vessels, which has grown from seven to 11 since 2016. Its river fleet will have doubled from three in 2015 to six when the American Harmony begins to sail next year.

David Luxeder, director of brand development for American Cruise Lines, said several things are fueling the rising demand.

American Cruise Lines' American Song has been sailing at capacity since it was launched this month.
American Cruise Lines' American Song has been sailing at capacity since it was launched this month.

"There is a huge generation of active baby boomers retiring and looking for better sophisticated travel options closer to home," Luxeder said. "They are smart in saving the extra expense and skipping the hassles of international flights, finding magnificent river cruising options here in the U.S. After all, we have one of the most dynamic and geographically diverse nations on Earth, and American offers over 35 carefully curated itineraries where guests can explore it all." 

Susan Shultz-Gelino, American Cruise Lines' director of business development, said there is also a consistently strong and growing interest in culturally focused river cruises as well as in those with longer stops, including itineraries that visit antebellum homes and Civil War battlefields along the Mississippi or retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark through the canyons and mountains along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

American Queen's Sykes agreed that part of the demand is being fueled by older travelers looking to avoid long-haul flights and those seeking more shoreside activities. He said they have also been seeing more younger travelers "looking for more soft adventure" since they, like American Cruise Lines, added itineraries on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"We keep extending the season and adding more options shoreside to satisfy repeat customers," he said. "So we've added some shorter cruises to extend the season and added things to do shoreside, like concerts."

Sykes said the American Queen Steamboat Co. is also "borrowing from our European competitors" by adding holiday-themed trips that include events like Christmas markets and fairs.

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