A decade after the Mississippi River’s overnight cruise industry’s comeback, the three companies running the river are expanding itineraries, adjusting their fleets to meet fluctuating demand and eyeing new customer bases, all while river towns make moves to support the industry’s return to the waterway.
For a few hours on a balmy evening just before Memorial Day, hundreds of cruise-goers sprawled across Tunica, Mississippi. Some crossed the gangway and made a right for a Mississippi River museum; others headed inland for a brief stop at the casinos that put the area on the map.
They’re passengers on the American Queen, making a final pitstop on a seven-day cruise that started in New Orleans. In Tunica, a town with about 1,000 people, river cruises bring a significant customer base to the area, and it’s one of many river towns welcoming the business of overnight cruises.
When the American Queen docks at Greenbelt Park in Memphis the next morning — one of 94 boats set to dock in the city this year, up from 57 dockings five years ago — many of the 300-odd passengers headed out to explore the city.
The cruise company estimates that each passenger spends about $135 per day at port.
Visit Natchez in a 2019 benefit-cost analysis determined total direct benefits for the Natchez River Cruise Docking Facility Project would be $167,726,440 vs. a project cost of $10,186,124.
Between the three overnight cruise lines on the Mississippi River — American Queen Voyages, American Cruise Lines and, as of last year, Viking — the industry has an estimated $100 million annual economic impact in Memphis, according to Kevin Kane, president and CEO of Memphis Tourism. That figure has tripled since 2016, according to the Memphis River Parks Partnership, a nonprofit that manages 250 acres of riverfront parkland.
Kane said the cruises’ affluent customer bases present a lot of opportunity for the city. The cruises attract a crowd who are mostly retired, wealthy and well-traveled. Many employees on board the American Queen described their audience as older people who have already been on river cruises and want to check the Mississippi River off their lists.
Tickets for a seven-day Mississippi River cruise with American Queen Voyages start around $4,000, and their most expensive cabins cost about $10,000 per person. Caribbean cruises can cost as little as $500 because ocean cruise lines rely on a high volume of passengers; the biggest ocean liner can hold 7,600 passengers at maximum capacity, while the biggest Mississippi River vessel holds just over 400 guests.
Memphis is putting $36 million toward its docking infrastructure to accommodate more cruises — the most recent development in a contentious, and sometimes tumultuous, investment in river tourism. Currently, one boat can dock at Beale Street Landing at a time; after the planned expansion, which is expected to begin by year-end, it’ll accommodate two.
The city also accommodates riverboats a few miles upriver at Greenbelt Park, where crews have to tie off to trees on the riverbank. To refill water, they have to run a hose more than 100 feet to a hydrant on the street, there’s nowhere to offload trash and there’s no shaded area for passengers waiting on transportation. With the city’s planned renovation, a new dock at Greenbelt Park will allow three boats to dock simultaneously between the two sites.
The American Queen was originally slated to dock at Beale Street Landing on Memorial Day, but ongoing construction forced it to reroute to Greenbelt Park.
“The current docking situation at Greenbelt Park is sorely lacking and is not an acceptable arrival experience for passengers,” said George Abbott, director of external affairs for Memphis River Parks Partnership.
Abbott said the preference for Beale Street Landing creates competition over the most favorable dates to arrive and depart from Memphis.
“We really feel we’re only a couple years away from having one or multiple vessels docked here literally almost every day, year round,” Kane said.
Memphis is one of many Mississippi River cities bolstering its docking infrastructure to welcome more cruises, and the cruise companies have invested money in towns to gain preferred docking rights. Cruise lines are jockeying for prime spots as the number of boats docking has expanded in the decade since overnight cruises returned to the river.
But dock expansion in Memphis has been contentious from the jump. Plans to construct Beale Street Landing started in the early 2000s and dragged on through three mayoral administrations, nearly doubling its initial budget. In that time, Hurricane Katrina hit, the river’s overnight cruise industry collapsed, federal funds dried up and many questioned the investment.
In 2001, the company that built the American Queen went bankrupt. It returned under different ownership but shuttered in 2008 alongside its only other competitor, just as Memphis broke ground on Beale Street Landing. For the first time in nearly two centuries, there was no overnight cruise on the Mississippi River.
Then, in 2012, a new company — now called American Queen Voyages — brought overnight cruises back to the Mississippi and headquartered in Memphis. It named Priscilla Presley the godmother of the American Queen, and after she christened it in Memphis, the boat set sail on its trip upriver, heralding another era of Mississippi River cruising.
Last year, Viking announced a cruise on the river, which signaled to many, including Kane, that overnight cruises on the Big Muddy are here to stay.
Captain Robert De Luca’s history with the American Queen dates back more than two decades, when he was second mate on the boat. He later piloted it before being promoted to captain, but after the industry collapsed in 2008, he left to pilot towboats instead.
When he returned to the American Queen last year after more than a decade away, he noticed changes in the customer base. During his welcome aboard, he asks first-timers to raise their hands; more hands go up today than did early in his career.
The number of passengers has changed, too. De Luca recalled times when there was a waitlist to ride the American Queen; as recently as 2016, the company reported 95% occupancy. On the lower Mississippi, De Luca said the boats tend to be about three-quarters full, but the numbers taper off on the upper river.
American Queen Voyages launched in 2012 with one boat. It later added two more to meet demand before retiring its smallest boat late last year.
“We were kind of competing against each other, almost, not filling up our own boats,” De Luca said of the company’s decision to retire its smallest boat. “When that business does hit, we’re ready.”
In late June 2023, the company announced plans to scrap its Great Lakes itineraries and sell the two boats it bought in 2019. The company characterized it as a move to refocus on its core river cruises. Its pivot away from the Great Lakes comes a year after Viking doubled its capacity in the region.
American Cruises Lines has five boats in its Mississippi River fleet, and three of those were added in the past three years. Its vessels are smaller, holding about half as many passengers as the American Queen — the biggest on the river by passenger capacity — and about half as many passengers as the Viking Mississippi — the biggest on the river by vessel size.
As American Cruise Lines expands the size of its fleet on the Mississippi, it’s also launching a 60-day cruise next fall. The $50,000 tour covers the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the West, followed by a cruise along the entire length of the Mississippi River and a final stint on the Hudson River, with flights included between the departure points.
As the two mainstays on the river adjust itineraries and fleets to meet fluctuating demand, Viking launched its first tours of the Mississippi River last September.
“Viking is a well-established cruise line, and they felt that they were really missing a strong opportunity for affluent travelers on river cruises,” Kane said.
But some of the businesses that have historically benefited from river tourism said that despite the upward trend since the industry returned in 2012, it hasn’t returned to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels.
Jay Schexnaydre, operations manager at the Laura Plantation, a stop included on two of the cruise lines’ itineraries between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, said the number of visitors from river cruises is lower than it was before the industry collapsed. When he started working at the Laura Plantation in 2001, he estimated that up to 150 cruise passengers would visit from each boat. Now, he places that number at 20 or 30 visitors, on average.
Schexnaydre has his own theories about why fewer cruise-goers turn up to the museum. Perhaps repeat passengers are opting to visit a different site this time around, or changing attitudes toward critical history drive fewer people to the Laura Plantation, which was the first of its kind in Louisiana to highlight the stories of enslaved people.
“It’s a certain kind of nostalgia for people who grew up with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and the mighty Mississippi,” Schexnaydre said. “But the younger people — they don’t have that nostalgia for the river.”
This story, the last in a three-part series, published in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, part of Mississippi Today, is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.