In 2015, Viking River Cruises plans to bring a version of the Longships the company is currently launching en masse in Europe to the Mississippi River, challenging the traditional paddlewheel model that has come to define the overnight passenger vessel experience on the largest U.S. waterway.
“The Longship design has shown to be a great way to see Europe,” Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking, wrote in an email. “The Viking vessel on the Mississippi will provide a great way to see [and] explore in comfort.”
Traditionally, most leisure cruises on the Mississippi River System have been offered on paddlewheelers modeled on classic 19th century steamboats. One notable exception was RiverBarge Excursion Lines, which operated the 196-passenger River Explorer, a combination of two barges and a tugboat, for 10 years up and down the Mississippi before ceasing operations in 2009.
Viking, however, sees room for a smaller, sleeker, European-style vessel on U.S. waterways.
“The Mississippi project has come about following the research we do on past passengers’ travel preferences. There is clearly a market there. Also, it will help showcase a Viking Longship-type vessel closer to our main (U.S.) source market,” Viking Chairman Tor Hagen recently said in a statement.
The Viking Longships are Viking’s newest class of European river vessels, accommodating 190 passengers. They measure 443 feet long (the maximum length in Europe due to lock constraints) and have four decks.
By contrast, one of the ships currently plying the Mississippi is the 436-passenger American Queen, a 419-foot-long paddlewheeler with six decks. Due to its larger size and height, it also has more and larger public spaces than most European river ships, which allows for a larger variety of onboard entertainment and activities, which can be important during the longer sailings the Mississippi River System often requires.
The American Queen Steamboat Co., which relaunched the American Queen last April, declined to comment on Viking’s decision to enter the Mississippi market with a European-style vessel.
While Viking has not yet chosen a shipyard to execute the project, Hagen noted that Viking has a design in mind and that the ship (or ships) expected to be operative in 2015 “will not have a paddlewheel.”
Viking noted that while it is focused on the Mississippi, it will also be looking into other U.S. river systems, such as in the Pacific Northwest, if the demand justifies it.
American Cruise Lines (ACL), which built the 150-passenger paddlewheeler Queen of the Mississippi from the ground up last year, has said that it never considered any other design for a Mississippi River vessel and that after surveying past Mississippi River cruise passengers, the company found that “an overwhelming majority prefer to do it on the paddlewheeler.”
But an ACL representative last week said that the company feels “there is room for different points of view on Mississippi River cruising.” ACL has said that it will be launching a second paddlewheeler in 2014, though has not yet confirmed whether it will sail the Mississippi or other U.S. inland waterways.
When ACL introduced the Queen of the Mississippi in August, Bruce Nierenberg, who served as president of the former Delta Queen Steamboat Co., said that paddlewheelers “have no technical advantage over regular propulsion systems.” In other words, companies don’t have to confine their vessel designs to paddlewheelers on the Mississippi.
Beyond the hardware, there is a question of whether the audience for the European river cruise market and the domestic market is one and the same. For Viking, it appears to be less about transitioning Mississippi River cruisers to Europe, and more about introducing passengers who have experienced river cruising in Europe to a similar encounter closer to home.
“We agree there are domestic travelers who will never take a European cruise but may take a Mississippi cruise,” Marnell wrote. But, he added, “almost all international travelers also travel domestically. There is certainly the capability to cross-market.”
Avalon Waterways and Tauck entered the Mississippi market in 2013 by contracting space on the American Queen, but Viking is the first major European river cruise player to target the Mississippi market with its own hardware.
Other operators, however, including Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection and AmaWaterways, have casually acknowledged that the Mississippi is a river they’re keeping an eye on.
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.