Rise in riverboat tourists reinvigorates river town economies

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Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

The American Duchess docked in Vicksburg.

The American Duchess, which made its first stop in Vicksburg on Saturday, is projected to deliver $1.8 million in tourism revenue to the city in 2018.

The Duchess’ arrival is the most recent evidence of the Mississippi River’s strong current impact on tourism in the state.

Twenty thousand visitors came to Vicksburg via riverboats in 2016, and the number is expected to be 25,000 for 2017, according to the Vicksburg Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. The number of riverboat stops in Vicksburg has increased from 76 last year to 102 this year; 128 are already booked for 2018.

“It will become a life experience for you to stay on the Mississippi River and stop in Vicksburg,” Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said during a ceremony on-board the boat Saturday.

The Duchess is the second boat operated by the American Queen Steamboat Co. to travel the Mississippi, along with the American Queen. They are two of four riverboats that make regular stops in Vicksburg. The other two are the Queen of the Mississippi and the America, both owned by American Cruise Lines.

Natchez, another stop on the riverboats’ route, also is experiencing a rising tide of tourism.

“They really have been picking up a lot,” said Kelin Hendricks, a spokesperson for Visit Natchez. Hendricks said she expects four riverboat visits per week by this fall.

“I definitely think it helps our Natchez tours and our individual businesses in the way it creates interactions with our locals,” she said. “I would say because of the boats they’re getting a lot more exposure and a lot more visitors.”

Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today

One of the dining areas on board the Duchess.

Traveling north after Natchez and Vicksburg, the vessels often stop in Greenville, which has also seen an uptick in tourism over the past few years thanks to the two steamboat companies.

“We have a wonderful river history to tell these passengers. We look forward to having them every time,” said Anne Martin, a local steamboat tour coordinator. “Once these tourists come and visit they say, ‘We had a really good time in Greenville, Miss., and go back to places like Europe and recommend it to other people.”

Martin said after 24 expected stops in Greenville for 2017, one company has already booked 41 for 2018.

The $1.8 million tourism revenue projected for Vicksburg next year by Shore Excursions of America, which partners with the American Queen Steamboat Co. to organize trips, will be spent by passengers on hotels, shops, tours and other attractions around the city.

“We’re delighted to have you,” Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, said at Saturday’s ceremony. “This is a beautiful partnership, because you bring people here to see our community and our state, and we in turn hopefully can show the great hospitality, great food and history.”

Riverboats have “a great impact for our downtown shops, local attractions and tour guides,” said Ashley Gatian, a sales manager with the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Mary Landers, 52, owns the Levee Street Market Place, an antique shop located a couple of streets from the port where the riverboats dock in Vicksburg.

“You know what they say, location, location, location,” Landers said. She took over the store, which her dad opened in 1973, four years ago, and said that every year she sees more tourists than the last.

“A lot of people come, not only from the riverboats — although there’s a lot of them — following the blues trail, going to New Orleans or Memphis. A lot of people from all over the world,” she said. Recent visitors from Ethiopia and Spain were the first that came to mind. 

“We want to make Vicksburg the premier tourist destination of the state of Mississippi,” said Flaggs, “and certainly we agree with the governor when he says it’s the gateway to the state from the West, and we want to live up to that. We want to continue to build through our tourism.”

The Duchess, the first all-suite paddle wheeler in the U.S.,  offers nine-day voyages between New Orleans and Memphis.

Alex Rozier, MIssissippi Today

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. holding an honorary American Duchess plate

“When I walked in [on the Duchess], I have to admit I was taken aback,” Flaggs said about the elegant accommodations.

Passengers on the Duchess, which can carry up to 166 people, are indeed exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, including 5-star cuisine, spacious furnished suites and private balconies. Tickets during its holiday sale for the Mississippi River voyage start at $2,299.