NEW ORLEANS — European river cruise giant Viking, already gaining a high profile in the United States with its sponsorship of popular PBS television shows, announced Tuesday that it will make New Orleans its first North American home port for Mississippi River cruises expected to begin by late 2017 and include St. Paul as a stop.
"They are in an expansion mode and this is the logical place for them to expand," said Mike Driscoll, editor of the industry newsletter Cruise Week.
Viking's move will produce 416 new jobs in New Orleans, according to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who made the announcement at the Port of New Orleans accompanied by Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen.
Viking, which has operational headquarters in Switzerland, plans construction of six boats at U.S. shipyards over the next three years. Each will be capable of hosting up to 300 passengers for the new American cruises.
New Orleans' tourism also will benefit, Jindal predicted. "It's about thousands of tourists coming to spend money at our hotels, our restaurants, in our city and our shops."
In New Orleans, the boats will dock near the French Quarter. Cruises will head north to Memphis, St. Louis and St. Paul, depending on the season.
“We’re super excited about the potential of this opportunity, especially since this fits perfectly into the City’s goals for the Great River Passage,” said Mike Hahm, St. Paul’s parks and recreation director. “ We want more people on the Mississippi River to experience, value and steward our most important environmental resource and economic asset. Now we need to dig into the details and continue the conversation with our partners to figure out how to make this happen.”
Terry Mattson, who heads the Visit St. Paul, the city’s convention bureau, said, “There are some details to work through before things are finalized, but Viking is no doubt committed. The company is highly respected in the travel market and very serious about St. Paul. We are on the banks of one of the world's most storied rivers, and the potential here is amazing.”
Louisiana's economic development office said the state offered Viking an incentive package that includes a $4.5 million performance-based grant for site preparation at the company's docking locations in Louisiana. Jindal's office said recruiting the company was part of the governor's recent European trip.
River cruising in general has exploded in popularity in recent years, offering a more traditional way to experience cruising than the mass-market megaships that carry thousands of people and are loaded with attractions such as rides and Broadway shows. Some travelers say river ships are a welcome throwback to an earlier era of cruising.
River cruising is also more destination-oriented, with boats navigating narrow waterways to port cities that massive ships could never reach.
On the Mississippi, American Queen Steamboat Company revived the market for overnight cruises beginning in 2012. The company's launch of service was the first time the overnight trips had been offered on the river since 2008. American Cruise Lines also offers trips on the Mississippi.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, called Viking's move "terrific news."
"As we've seen in Europe, especially, when Viking enters a market, it truly helps to broaden awareness," she said. "The Mississippi River is one of the most magical and charming rivers to explore, so we're looking forward to seeing more and more travelers experiencing one of America's most intriguing cruise regions."
Driscoll, also, expects Viking's entry to spark new interest in Mississippi cruises.
"They market intelligently," said Driscoll, who said he expects Viking to appeal to a younger demographic group than those who have long been part of the Mississippi cruise line market.
The cruise line plans announcements on its Mississippi itineraries and ship design later this year. When Viking first began publicly discussing possible plans for Mississippi cruises in 2013, Hagen told an industry publication that a Viking Mississippi vessel would be similar to the contemporary ships Viking uses on European rivers.
"Those ships do not look like the classic steam vessels that used to ply the Mississippi River," Driscoll said Tuesday. "My guess is they're not going to go back to that."
Star Tribune staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.