We know what you were thinking when you heard the news that Cruise West has shuttered its doors: “What about Mississippi River cruising?” Indeed, in June, Cruise West had announced plans for two new 2011 itineraries aboard the 102-passenger Spirit of America on the Mississippi River in hopes of resuscitating the all but dormant market.
But fear not, there’s still hope. Now, American Cruise Lines says that it is building a new Mississippi River paddlewheeler to set sail in August 2012.
The 140-passenger ship is under construction at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Maryland. It will operate on the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers. ACL would not disclose how much it is investing in the vessel.
The ship will have the look of a traditional riverboat, but will have larger staterooms and larger public areas than the ships that were known for plying the Mississippi River in the past, such as the Delta Queen and American Queen.
With engines that have greater horsepower, as well as a more modern hull design the ship will travel faster than traditional paddlewheelers, according to Tim Beebe, vice president of American Cruise Lines. It will include six lounges, a library, a dining salon, and elevator service to all decks.
Existing vessels “just didn’t meet the quality of our standards. Those ships had very small staterooms, small public areas. They were very slow. They took a very long time to get up the river, which leads them to have very limited itineraries,” said Beebe, with regards to why ACL is building a new ship rather than buying an existing Mississippi River vessel.
In November 2008, Ambassadors International, Inc. shut down its Majestic America Line, taking its three storied Mississippi ships — the 176-passenger Delta Queen, the 436-passenger American Queen and the 412-passenger Mississippi Queen — out of service with it.
Ambassadors sold the Mississippi Queen for salvage value. The Delta Queen is currently being operated as a floating hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And the U.S. Maritime Administration currently has possession of the American Queen, which is on the market for $15 million.
Since Majestic’s demise, there has been very little river ship activity in the region. Blount Small Ship Adventures, formerly American Canadian Caribbean Line, operates the 68-passenger Niagara Prince, which in 2011 will sail three Southeastern itineraries, from New Orleans to Chattanooga; from Chattanooga to Nashville; and from Nashville to Chicago.
ACL’s first Mississippi River cruise is scheduled to depart Aug. 11, 2012 from New Orleans, La. on a 7-night journey up the Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. The ship will then begin a series of 7-night cruises travelling as far north as St. Paul, Minnesota.
Beebe said the new ship isn’t launching until 2012 because of the shipyard’s busy shipbuilding schedule.
As for the potential of the Mississippi River cruise market, said Beebe, “We believe that there was too much capacity on the Mississippi before. With the right capacity, you can be very successful operating a ship on the Mississippi. We’re responding to the demand from passengers.”