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
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.
"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
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
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.