Riverboats take to the Mississippi again
The outlook for the rebirth of Mississippi River cruising this summer is upbeat, according to the owners of the two cruise lines whose ships will ply Old Man River.
This will be the first time since 2008 that vintage-style riverboats have cruised the Mississippi, and the prospect of these voyages is bringing smiles back to river-watchers in this region.
Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Co. will relaunch the 436-passenger American Queen in April — that ship was a trademark on the river as well as the largest one there when it was launched in 1995.
It went out of service several years ago when its-then parent company, Majestic Cruise Lines, defaulted on a guaranteed loan to the government.
The Great American Steamboat Co. subsequently acquired it from the U.S. Maritime Administration and has rehabilitated the ship. Cost for purchase and renovations is estimated at $21 million.
The other ship on Mississippi waters this summer will be a new build, constructed by Guilford, Conn.-based American Cruise Lines.
That paddlewheeler, named the Queen of the Mississippi, will set sail in August while the American Queen is being launched several months earlier. As far as advanced sales are concerned, owners of both ships say the outlook is very positive, according to interviews published in Travel Weekly.
Since opening its reservations call center last Sept. 30, the Great American Steamboat Co. is averaging $250,000 a day in sales, six days a week, according to company CEO Jeff Kridak. His ship, the American Queen, is already about 76 percent full for the first three months of the season, according to the interview in Travel Weekly.
An official of the American Cruise Line's Queen of the Mississippi said sales there are about 40 percent ahead of projections for 2012, and "a number of cruises are already sold out."
Both ships will cruise similar areas of the Mississippi, basing many voyages from New Orleans, and its tributaries. Voyages to the Upper Mississippi — back and forth between St. Louis and St. Paul — are scheduled for fall, when colorful fall foliage will be at its peak.
The American Queen will make the most voyages in the region; nine are scheduled beginning Sept. 7 and ending Nov. 5. The voyages are for seven nights with the ship going to and from St. Louis and St. Paul.
Most of the time the ship will stop at Red Wing while other area communities are on the list as well.
The Queen of the Mississippi will make its first voyage from St. Louis to St. Paul beginning Sept. 1.
The return trip is slated for Sept. 8. Others are scheduled for Oct. 20 and 27. Stops will be at La Crosse and Red Wing.
Interest here is 'tepid'
Local interest in cruising the Mississippi on either of the two paddlewheelers has been very limited, according to several Rochester travel agents contacted by Travel Scene. Most have had inquiries, but there have been no recorded bookings, according to Donna Hoehne of AAA, BJ Peterson of Bursch Travel and Carol Dougherty of Horizon Travel.
Hoehne led several group tours on the sternwheelers before all cruising stopped several years ago, and is somewhat perplexed by the apparent lack of interest, at least at this time.
"Maybe things will turn around later in the season," Hoehne said. "I've always enjoyed leading group tours on the river and our clients have always been impressed."
She added that perhaps the "lack of response is from people who don't like to 'vacation in their own back yard,' so to speak."
River cruising rises in popularity
Cruising the Mississippi and its tributaries has long been popular, but in the late 1990s, the bottom began to fall out of the market.
Most of the action was provided by the New Orleans-based Delta Queen Steamboat Co. which operated three ships — the American Queen that now is being refurbished, the Mississippi Queen and the Delta Queen.
The fabled Delta Queen, built in 1928, was the flagship.
The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. ran into financial difficulties and was subsequently sold, but neither the new owner and others which followed was unable to turn things around.
And that's when river cruising came to an end, government loans were called and ships were disposed of.
The Delta Queen is now being operated as a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., while the Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap by the Maritime Commission.
The American Queen, then, is the only survivor of the once-proud, three-ship fleet.