After a long drought, 2012 will be a banner year for U.S. river cruising, as two companies launch paddlewheelers on the Mississippi and other great rivers. In addition to American Cruise Lines’ newbuild, Queen of the Mississippi, the 436-passenger American Queen will start service in April via a new cruise line headed by familiar names.
The Great American Steamboat Co. is currently completing its purchase of American Queen, which is the largest steamboat ever built, for a reported $15.5 million from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD); her construction cost in 1994 was $60 million. Headquarters will be in Memphis, and bookings are set to open in mid-August.
The company had first considered New Orleans as its home base, but Memphis rolled out the red carpet for the venture. The City Council unanimously approved a $9 million federal Housing and Urban Development loan for 10 years, with repayment coming in boarding and docking fees paid by passengers, initially $89 per person, dropping to $15 per person once the loan is paid back. The remaining $22 million of the $31 million project will be privately financed by the Great American Steamboat Co. and investors. Memphis officials estimate that the annual economic impact to the city will be $89.5 million.
Days Gone By
Overnight river cruising virtually disappeared from America’s major interior rivers in 2008, when the historic Delta Queen took her last cruise. She had been brought from California through the Panama Canal and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Cincinnati in 1946, where she became the darling of American river cruise aficionados. As time went on and requirements for ships changed, Delta Queen operated under a special exemption from Congress, and the Delta Queen Steamboat Company added new ships in 1976 and 1994 (Mississippi Queen and American Queen) and continued its very prosperous business, with high per diems and full ships.
However, by then, the parent company, American Classic Voyages (ACV), which also owned the American Hawaii Cruise Line, decided to leverage the success of the riverboats into a stronger operation in Hawaii. Analysts thought the company had overextended itself, and the final blow came with the impact of Sept. 11, after which ACV went bankrupt.
The steamboats passed from company to company, but none were able to operate the ships successfully. Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap, American Queen went to MARAD and the Delta Queen, deprived of its congressional exemptions, went to Chattanooga, Tenn., to become a floating hotel.
A River Cruising Resurgence
The Great American Steamboat Co., a group of travel industry veterans, has enthusiastically entered the playing field. Jeff Krida, who had overseen the construction of American Queen as president of the Delta Queen in the 1990s, will now serve as CEO of the Great American Steamboat Co., and Russ Varvel, former sales and marketing manager for Delta Queen, will be the vice president of sales for the line.
They join executives including chairman John Waggoner, president and CEO of HMS Global Maritime, which operates a huge fleet of U.S.-flagged riverboat casinos and ferries, and president Christopher Kyte, founder and chairman of Uncommon Journeys, specializing in luxury train and ocean travel.
Waggoner and Kyte had been bidding against one another for the American Queen in 2010, until they finally elected to join forces and create the company together. The result: American Queen begins operating in April next year on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. She will dock at the new pier at Memphis’ Beale Street Landing.
Meanwhile, American Cruise Lines — which already has the 120-passenger Queen of the West on the Columbia and Snake rivers — is building a new sternwheeler, the 140-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, with classic lines and modern amenities including six lounges, a library and elevator service to all decks. She is scheduled to debut in August next year, offering seven-night cruises that sail from ports including New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, St. Paul, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The forecast for both vessels is certainly good: apart from the pent up demand for overnight cruising on rivers in the Midwest and South, the mature market — the target for river cruising — has grown substantially and is slated to continue this growth for years to come.