Viking River Cruises, known for luxuriously traveling the world's great rivers and spending time in their great cities — Paris, Vienna, Cairo, Shanghai — may soon be making port in … St. Paul?
On Tuesday, the European river cruise giant — known to many Americans for its sumptuous ads preceding TV's "Downton Abbey" — announced that it will begin cruising the mighty Mississippi, with New Orleans as its home port and St. Paul as a stop.
On Wednesday, St. Paul officials and businesspeople were positively giddy over the prospects of 300 well-heeled river cruise passengers regularly disembarking or embarking in the city.
"I think this is going to be huge," St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said. "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."
Patrick Seeb, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation in St. Paul, said Viking is seeking to tap into a group of world travelers, especially from Europe and Asia, who grew up with the lore of the Mississippi and Middle America. Unlike ocean cruises, river cruises tend to stop and savor the sights and ports along the way — expected to be a great benefit to St. Paul and its attractions, Seeb said.
"It's for people who are explorers and like to see the world," he said, noting that the cruise ships could stop at an improved Lambert's Landing, near the renovated St. Paul Union Depot and a new hotel being planned for the former downtown post office site. "It's perfect timing and Viking sees that."
While much is still in the planning stages, Viking officials have said that they plan to build 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. Boats will be specifically designed to navigate the Mississippi and safely pass through locks and under bridges from New Orleans to St. Paul.
Viking's move will produce 416 new jobs in New Orleans, according to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who made the announcement at the Port of New Orleans alongside Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen. The new cruise route is expected to bring thousands of tourists to stops all along the Mississippi, including Memphis, St. Louis and St. Paul.
Patrick Moes, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul, said the Upper Mississippi — with its abundant wildlife, dazzling fall colors and dramatic river bluffs from La Crosse, Wis., to Winona to Red Wing — "is the hidden jewel of the Upper Midwest."
Viking officials contacted the St. Paul Port Authority a couple of months ago to begin the work of finding a good spot for them to have a dedicated landing, said Louis Jambois, the Port Authority's executive director. They have been in continued contact with officials here.
"We are aware of the company's reputation around the world and it is exciting they are looking at the Mississippi River as a destination," Jambois said. "We are going to be introducing a whole new group of people to St. Paul who might not have even known about St. Paul before."
Terry Mattson, head of 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."
The popularity of river cruising has exploded 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 Co. revived the market for overnight cruises 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.
Sally Ableitner, director of sales and marketing for the Doubletree Hotel and Rival House restaurant in downtown St. Paul, already hosts passengers on the American Queen during their stopovers in St. Paul. The prospects of bringing Viking's travelers to a Saints game in Lowertown, or a trip to the Science Museum of Minnesota, the J.J. Hill House or the Cathedral is exciting, she said.
"Being the end of the line, we can showcase the historical parts of the city," she said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.