The Mississippi River cruise industry has been all but dormant since Majestic America Line ceased operations at the end of 2008.
But Cruise West is now attempting to resuscitate one of America’s great inland waterways with two new 2011 itineraries aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of America (pictured).
“We’re trying to bring the sleeping beauty back to life,” said Dietmar Wertanzl, president and CEO of Cruise West.
Cruise West is not unfamiliar with the U.S. river cruising industry. In addition to international small-ship coastal sailings the company has itineraries along the Columbia and Snake rivers on its 96-passenger Spirit of ’98 and 84-passenger Spirit of Discovery ships.
For Cruise West, sailing the Mississippi with its Spirit of America ship was a natural extension of its existing U.S. river cruise product, said Wertanzl. “This ship was made for U.S. inland waterways and coastal cruising. For us, it’s a perfect fit.”
Unlike the three large paddlewheelers Majestic operated on the Mississippi, which ranged in length from 285 feet to 418 feet, the expedition-style small-ship Spirit of America (formerly the Spirit of Glacier Bay) is 207 feet in length with four decks, including an upper sun deck, and three lower decks with 51 cabins.
While those ships had large dining and entertainment facilities that were viewed by some as themed destinations unto themselves, Spirit of America will be focusing more “on the destinations and the experiences” along the rivers, said Wertanzl.
Originally named the Spirit of Nantucket and built in 1984, the ship was acquired by Cruise West in 2006 and renamed the Spirit of Glacier Bay in 2008, when it was repositioned by Cruise West from the East Coast to Alaska.
Prior to being repositioned to the Mississippi, the U.S.-flagged Spirit of America will receive cosmetic upgrades to its interiors in line with the upgrades Cruise West made in 2008 on its 138-passenger Spirit of Yorktown ship, including new carpeting and furniture.
In 2011, the Spirit of America will sail two 7-night itineraries, one along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Memphis, and the other along the Mississippi, Ohio Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers from Memphis to Nashville.
There will be eight departures in 2011, with prices starting at $3,499 per person. The New Orleans to Memphis dates are March 19 and April 16, or the reverse itinerary on April 9 and May 7, 2011. The Memphis to Nashville dates are March 26 and April 23, or the reverse itinerary on April 2 and 30, 2011.
The Mississippi Legacy
In November 2008, Ambassadors International shut down its Majestic America Line brand, taking its three Mississippi ships — the 176-passenger Delta Queen, the 436-passenger American Queen (both pictured above) and the 412-passenger Mississippi Queen — out of service with it.
Six weeks later, RiverBarge Excursion Lines, which operated the 196-passenger River Explorer along the Mississippi, Cumberland, Ohio and Tennessee rivers and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Louisiana and Texas, ceased operations.
Since then, there has been some continued activity in the region, but not much. Blount Small Ship Adventures, formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line, operates the 68-passenger Niagara Prince, which in 2011 will sails three Southern itineraries, from New Orleans to Chattanooga; from Chattanooga to Nashville; and from Nashville to Chicago.
But despite Majestic’s failure in the region, there’s no reason why other operators like Cruise West, shouldn’t have success there, said Rod McLeod, who served from 1999 to 2001 as president and COO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.’s then-parent, American Classic Voyages.
“When that market, when there was some health to it, which now goes back 10 years, it’s a very good market with good rates,” said McLeod. “This is destination rich itinerary. There are parts of it that are scenic, there are parts of it that are very industrial. You can liken it to river cruising in Europe.”
Much of the demand actually comes from Civil War enthusiasts, said McLeod. Indeed, Blount just announced that for its 2011 Mississippi River cruise itineraries, four of the sailings will have Civil War authors onboard. And Wertanzl too said Cruise West is keeping its eye on Civil War buffs as potential passengers.
Cruise West is hoping that the limited supply in the region, combined with the pent-up demand since Majestic exited the market will help support its relatively higher price point, which ranges from $3,499 per person to $5,099 per person.
“It’s economy of scale,” said Wertanzl, adding that with only 102 passengers per sailing, “we have to have a higher price point to be profitable.”