Wine-themed itineraries with Un-Cruise Adventures appeal to crusiers of all ages. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): American Cruise Lines is set to debut the first of four newbuilds in April. // © 2015 American Cruise Lines
Cruising American waterways has changed dramatically in the last decade. Not only have new ships debuted on the Mississippi and in the Pacific Northwest, but there has also been a notable resurgence in sailing on the Great Lakes and on rivers and canals in the Northeast and Florida.
The potential drive market is tremendous, and the rich history of these regions is drawing a growing number of international passengers. Last year, 10 percent of American Queen Steamboat Company’s guests came from overseas, doubling the total from 2013.
As cruise lines order additional vessels, a handful are breaking the mold by introducing new hardware — a move cruisers may consider a breath of fresh air. While the traditional, wedding-cake-like sternwheeler is attractive to some passengers because of its mahogany, brass and lace accoutrements, others desire ships that walk the line between traditional and modern.
In April, American Cruise Lines will introduce its 150-passenger American Eagle, the first of four similar newbuilds. The ship will have classic paddlewheeler design elements as well as modern touches such as private balconies and complimentary Wi-Fi access.
American Queen has also announced plans to build a fleet of nontraditional ships for American waterways, and Viking River Cruises will enter the arena with newbuilds that look more like European longships than Victorian paddlewheelers.
These new designs have the potential to change the way clients think about river cruising. Tom Baker, co-owner of the Houston-based Cruise Center, has found it hard to break age perceptions that surround American river cruises.
“These cruises are good for any age group, yet travelers consign them to the very elderly,” Baker said.
New itineraries and programming are helping combat that stereotype, however. In the Northwest, Un-Cruise Adventures targets wine lovers of all ages with fall sailings onboard the 88-guest Legacy of Discovery. The trip cruises four rivers — the Columbia, Snake, Willamette and Palouse — and visits nine regional wineries.
This spring, Haimark Ltd. is launching the newly refurbished 204-passenger Saint Laurent on the Great Lakes. The ship’s 10-day journeys between Chicago and Toronto are expected to attract regional customers, who can drive to the departure port and then buy a one-way ticket home from the disembarkation point.
“We anticipate that our Saint Laurent product will appeal to a more mature audience but also to multigenerational travel groups, with grandparents bringing adult children and grandchildren,” said Tom Markwell, managing partner of sales and marketing for Haimark.
Like their counterparts in Europe, American cruises are highly inclusive — an attractive perk regardless of a client’s age. Travel agents believe the only barrier American cruising has in seeing the same dramatic growth as Europe is visibility and perception.
With expansion plans and new ship designs in the works for many river cruise lines, it’s only a matter of time before American cruising reaches a tipping point. Now, it’s up to agents to introduce travelers to the market.