A previously heralded move up the Mississippi River by European cruise giant Viking now appears uncertain.
The cruise line with ships gliding down rivers in Europe, China and Egypt announced plans last year to launch a fleet of cruise ships on the Mississippi, traveling from New Orleans to St. Louis and occasionally St. Paul, by 2017.
But earlier this year, Viking said it was pushing its move to Ol’ Man River to 2018. And a recent statement by Viking regarding the project is even more vague, providing no details and no date.
While the company has said nothing about the reasons for delay, local officials and industry experts say that factors appear to be cost and a federal law that requires ships sailing between U.S. ports to be built in the U.S.and operated by American crews.
Responding this week to an inquiry about when they might begin offering Mississippi cruises, Viking River Cruises issued this statement:
“We are actively working with our partners to launch on the Mississippi River, but at this point in time we do not have any details to share regarding product specifics or a launch timeline.”
That’s a marked departure from the buzz in February 2015, when Viking announced it was adding New Orleans, St. Louis and St. Paul to a cruise lineup of exotic cities such as Paris, Budapest, Cairo and Shanghai.
The announcement left St. Paul officials positively giddy that, starting in 2017, 300 well-heeled river cruise passengers would regularly disembark or board ship in their city.
“I think this is going to be huge,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said at the time. “It was ships coming up the river that started the city. It is only fitting that ships coming upriver now are a piece of its excitement.”
But early this year, Viking officials said they were postponing the move. In a statement released in February, company officials said that the cruise line’s “projected maiden season” on the Mississippi “has been adjusted to 2018 to accommodate an updated timeline.”
Viking had said it would put six riverboats on the Mississippi over three years and that they would be docked near New Orleans’ French Quarter. The estimated cost to build each vessel: $90 million to $100 million.
Issues with federal law
But industry officials said that Viking’s challenge is in building the ships. According to the federal Jones Act, ships that travel between U.S. ports must be built in the U.S. and crewed, registered and owned by U.S. companies.
Viking’s existing ships were either built in Viking shipyards in Europe or are refurbished boats from previous owners. At the time of Viking’s 2015 announcement, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said construction of new ships would take place in Louisiana. That has not happened.
While Viking officials would not comment on reasons for the delay, Andrea Novak, senior vice president of marketing for the St. Paul Port Authority, said the pause is connected to the Jones Act.
“My understanding is that they are continuing to work with Maritime Administration,” part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, she said.
Monty Mathisen, managing editor of Cruise Industry News, said it may just be a matter of a company that has dramatically expanded its operations in a short period of time taking a pause on U.S. plans.
“Viking is expanding on rivers in Europe, expanding oceanside ... they might be a little bit overextended,” Mathisen said.
‘The potential is amazing’
Another issue could simply be the higher cost of building in the United States. Industry experts say that American shipbuilders are often union-represented and that vessels cost significantly more to build here than in European shipyards.
“Probably by a lot,” said Rich Miller, editor of Professional Mariner magazine, a trade journal for the maritime industry in North America. In addition, he said, U.S. environmental regulations may also add to Viking’s potential costs to build here.
That’s too bad, Miller said. Shipbuilders in the Gulf of Mexico could use the business.
“It’s a buyers’ market, let me tell you. A lot of shipyards around the Gulf Coast build offshore supply vessels, crew boats for the drilling industry, and since the price of oil has collapsed, that has collapsed,” he said. “I would think that if Viking is looking to build down in the Gulf, they would have their pick.”
Viking had said that its new fleet of Mississippi cruise ships would need to be specifically designed to navigate the Mississippi and safely pass through locks and under bridges from New Orleans to St. Paul. The delay has put into question hundreds of U.S. shipbuilding jobs, as well as the expected bounty of tourists by the thousands making stops up and down the river.
For St. Paul to become one of those stops, work will need to be done to plan and construct a river landing for cruise ships. That won’t happen unless Viking moves ahead.
Two other companies, American Queen Steamboat Co. and American Cruise Lines, currently offer Mississippi cruises, although Novak said neither comes to St. Paul.
In 2015, St. Paul officials were optimistic about their chances to add a new dimension to the city’s river identity and said they were certain that Viking was “committed” to the project.
But for now it’s wait and see.
“The company is highly respected in the travel market and very serious about St. Paul,” said Terry Mattson, head of Visit St. Paul, at the time. “We are on the banks of one of the world’s most storied rivers, and the potential here is amazing.”