How’s a voyage up the Mississippi to compete with those Danube and Volga cruises?
U.S. river tour companies look to expand, despite protectionist law “If not for the Jones Act, it probably would be a little easier”
Over the past 20 years, millions of people have hopped aboard cruise ships to sail Europe’s great rivers, from the Loire to the Volga. Companies such as Viking River Cruises have been so successful that they’re expanding into Asia, selling journeys along the Irrawaddy, Mekong, and Yangtze rivers. Yet river cruising remains largely undeveloped in the U.S.
Many in the industry blame the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, a federal law that requires travel between U.S. ports to be conducted on U.S.-built ships owned by Americans, with American crews. This makes a cruise along U.S. rivers more expensive than many of those available in Europe and significantly pricier than the average weeklong ocean cruise on Carnival or Royal Caribbean. “The legal side is a little bit of a challenge,” says Rudi Schreiner, president of
California-based AmaWaterways, which offers upscale river cruises on 20 vessels in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. “If not for the Jones Act, it probably would be a little easier.”
The law was sponsored by Senator Wesley Jones, a Republican from Washington state who wanted to secure Seattle’s advantage over Canadian ports in shipping goods to and from Alaska, then a U.S. territory. It’s been fiercely defended ever since by domestic shipbuilders and cargo shippers. Last year, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, citing increased costs to consumers for goods moved by sea between U.S. ports, tried and failed to repeal the act, which he described as “an antiquated law that has for too long hindered free trade.”
About 700,000 people go on river cruises worldwide each year. Only 55,000 of them set sail in the U.S., where the market is dominated by American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat. American Queen’s average fare is $3,400 per person for an eight-day sailing; American Cruise’s lowest rate for a comparable summer voyage is more than $4,500 per person. Offseason fares are slightly less, but a couple can easily spend $15,000 for a week on the Mississippi.
The potential for growth in the U.S. market has led river cruise operators to take a second look, despite the burdens imposed by the Jones Act. Last year, Viking announced it would begin tours up the Mississippi in 2017, sailing two specially commissioned U.S.made riverboats from docks near the French Quarter in New Orleans. The Los Angeles-based company said in February it would delay the start of cruises a year, to 2018.
While European river cruises visit medieval towns and castles, Mississippi voyages typically feature a heavy dose of Mark Twain-inflected nostalgia and ragtime melodies. “It’s a whole Norman Rockwell thing,” says Ted Sykes, president of American Queen. One port of call, Chester, Ill., is known as the “Home of Popeye” because the cartoon’s creator, E.C. Segar, was born there. In the Pacific Northwest, cruises along the Columbia and Snake rivers advertise scenic vistas and themed voyages focused on wine or craft beer.
In February, American Cruise Lines reduced prices on some of its Pacific Northwest itineraries to $1,975 per person. The Connecticut-based company owns a shipyard in Maryland where it builds tugboats and passenger vessels, as well as river cruisers. The “very small experiment” on pricing will help gauge demand at the lower end of the market, says Chief Executive Officer Charles Robertson.
American Queen plans to add three ships to its fleet by 2020, including its first new one, and move into Great Lakes cruises. Many U.S. river cruisers, says Sykes, are seeking a vacation that is “safe, secure, and close to home”—with no international airline travel required.
The bottom line A 96-year-old law banning foreign operators from sailing between U.S. ports has stunted the domestic river cruise market.
Per person fare for an American Queen cruise from New Orleans to Memphis, March 27-April 4 $2,249 to $7,199