Viking to crack Mississippi River cruise market

The move comes as the historic Delta Queen gets a new lease on life, American Queen Steamboat Co. wraps up a $2 million refurbishment for the American Queen’s fourth season, and American Cruise Lines’ (ACL) new American Eagle starts sailing from New Orleans in early April. ACL also is planning a new fleet of riverboats to sail new U.S. itineraries.

Viking, whose 60 vessels cruise rivers in Europe, Russia, China and Southeast Asia, first hinted at its U.S. plans two years ago soon after ACL and American Queen launched regular overnight inland river cruising.

Based in Switzerland, Viking said its U.S. fleet would meet Jones Act requirements. The 300-passenger vessels, which would cost $90 million to $100 million each, will be built at U.S. yards, crewed by U.S. citizens and owned by Tennenbaum Capital Partners, a Los Angeles-based investment management company. The vessels would be time-chartered to Viking “in full compliance with maritime laws,” the company said.

A Viking spokesman could not provide details on vessel design or possible shipyards.

Rivals took a positive view of Viking’s move.

“We welcome the competition and any development that continues to put the spotlight on U.S. river cruising,” said Ted Sykes, American Queen’s president and COO. Work on the American Queen at Boland Marine & Industrial, New Orleans, included a rebuilt paddlewheel, new carpeting, and two-part polymer and high gloss exterior paint finish. 

“I am thrilled,” said Cornel Martin, whose Delta Queen Steamboat Co. just bought the historic vessel for an undisclosed sum. Viking’s advertising clout should help convince people to take an American river cruise, he said. And when they start exploring their options, they’ll find the “only 1927 authentic steamboat on the river.”

By the end of March, Martin expected to have the 176-passenger Delta Queen moved out of Chattanooga, Tenn., where she has been tied up, and on her way to Louisiana for work. He and his partners plan to spend an estimated $5 million on restoration and renovation work including new boilers, the HVAC system and new generators and have her cruising again in 2016.

But first they need federal legislation to permit her to return to service. Martin said he’s confident about passage of a bill that would exempt old vessels operating on inland waters from current fire hazard restrictions if the owners annually renovate at least 10% of the areas not made of fire-retardant materials.

Earlier legislation that passed the House but not the Senate before the last session ended gave the steamboat a 15-year exemption to regulations that require passenger vessels for 50 or more to be made of fire retardant materials. The steel-hulled Delta Queen with its wood and steel superstructure had been kept alive with a series of exemptions. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, she stopped sailing in 2008 when money-losing Majestic America Line shut down.  

— D.K. DuPont


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