Last updated: 07:00 PM ET, Tue March 10 2015

Travel Insights: More Ships Rollin' on the Mississippi

Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Viking Cruises | James Shillinglaw | March 10, 2015

Travel Insights: More Ships Rollin' on the Mississippi

PHOTO: The Queen of the Mississippi will face some stiff competition when Viking rolls into town. (Courtesy of American Cruise Lines)

Confirmation came earlier this month that Viking River Cruises really will build at least six ships to cruise the Mississippi. I have particular interest in this story because I've been covering both Viking and the existing Mississippi river cruise companies for a few years now. Indeed, when it was first reported nearly two years ago that Viking intended to begin operating on the Mississippi, I was scooped on the story by one of my friendly competitors, Anne Kalosh of Seatrade Insider.

I mean I just couldn't have imagined that Viking would want the headaches that everyone had told me were present for companies operating on the Mississippi, including getting port and river navigation rights. Nor would they want to build ships in the U.S., which costs a lot of money. So I committed the cardinal sin of a reporter when I interviewed Viking Chairman Tor Hagen. I didn't ask him about it!

Now Hagen, who is nothing if not brash and confident in his bid to build a river cruise empire, has gotten the backing of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, which means he may have solved many of his state and local challenges to cruise operations on the Mississippi. He also has committed to building six ships on the Mississippi, with the first launching as early as 2017.

Now these vessels won't be like what's on the river now: the traditional riverboats sailed by American Queen Steamboat and American Cruise Lines. Instead, they may very well be some version of Viking's Longships, currently sailing on European rivers. Then again, with Hagen you never know what he might do.

Given the clout that Viking has in consumer marketing and media, don't bet against Hagen taking firm hold of the Mississippi river cruise market in a very short time. There are only three existing products on the river: the 436-passenger America Queen, the largest passenger steamboat in the world, and American Cruise Lines' two 150-passenger ships, Queen of the Mississippi and American Eagle, which is expected to begin sailings later this month.

Now I've been on American Queen and it's a marvelous product, but the company that runs it has been strategically slow to build or acquire new ships. There may be challenges ahead when Viking muscles in on the market, because it's known as a major shipbuilder when it gets going. And to make matters even more complicated, a new company has purchased the Delta Queen, first built in 1927, from a unit of Xanterra Parks and Resorts. The new owners say the ship could be back sailing the Mississippi as early as 2016.

Suddenly Mississippi River cruising is hot. It may not be quite the same as what's going on European rivers, but it's an encouraging development for river cruising in the U.S.


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