On the flowery new 245-passenger American Countess riverboat, passengers sip complimentary mint juleps on a high deck, masks wrapped round their wrists like bulging bracelets, whereas the ship’s massive, crimson paddle wheel churns via the Mississippi. It’s a post-pandemic sight to behold-even if these should not fairly post-pandemic occasions. Nonetheless, its mere prevalence places John Waggoner, founder and chief govt officer of the four-ship American Queen Steamboat Co., within the catbird seat so far as the cruise business is anxious.
On lengthy, white-and-red-painted boats with open decks, embellished with fanciful Victorian-style gingerbread trim, Waggoner sells hardcore Americana that’s steeped in U.S. historical past. It’s a scorching product beneath the present circumstances, he says.
“There’s a giant push to purchase in America,” Waggoner mentioned in an interview. “So: U.S.-flagged vessels, in-built America, manned by U.S. staff. I believe there’s a giant transfer in the direction of that.”
There’s additionally the truth that he’s allowed to function whereas much-larger rivals can not, together with Royal Caribbean Worldwide, Carnival Cruise Line, even mega-river cruise line Viking River Cruises. For the reason that cruise business shut down in March 2020, the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention has blessed solely cruise ships carrying fewer than 250 passengers and crew. Waggoner’s 4 ships are amongst few of those within the U.S., making them a uncommon possibility for tens of millions of American cruise lovers who’re in any other case caught in a holding sample.
Bigger corporations are hatching plans to avoid the CDC’s orders by restarting Caribbean-only sailings this summer season. However American Queen is already again in enterprise with two boats-the American Countess and the smaller, 166-passenger American Duchess-both working since mid-March with decreased capability to permit for social distancing and adjust to the 250-person restrict. Its less-luxurious competitor American Cruise Strains additionally returned to the Mississippi on March 21, and plans to have three boats on the river in April. These embrace a brand new, fashionable, 190-passenger riverboat and two small paddle-wheelers. All will sail at restricted capability, with a vaccine required for departures via April 30, 2021. (After that, the corporate plans to solely require unfavourable PCR exams.)
If the CDC permits it, Waggoner hopes so as to add the opulent American Queen, the world’s largest paddleboat-which can carry greater than 420 passengers-by the tip of Could. All three vessels sail the Mississippi and a few tributaries: the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers. A fourth riverboat could quickly traverse the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington and Oregon, following the route of Nineteenth-century explorers Lewis and Clark, pending negotiations with these state governments.
There’s motive to imagine the authorities will chunk. In its first few voyages carrying paying clients up and down the Mississippi, American Queen had no confirmed circumstances of covid-19. That bucks a sample of constructive circumstances amongst cruise lines-including small-ship ocean strains SeaDream Yacht Membership and Hurtigruten-that has loomed over the cruise business like a darkish cloud.
Waggoner mentioned the numbers at American Queen Steamboat are working forward of 2019 ranges. The corporate noticed vital upticks in January, on the heels of the U.S. vaccine rollout, and once more in February, when it introduced a requirement that friends, crew, and even bus drivers be vaccinated for sailings, beginning in July, he mentioned. “We’re excited with our gross sales momentum.”
For journeys earlier than July, friends are required to take a PCR check throughout a one-night pre-cruise resort keep that’s included within the value of eight-night sailings that begin at $2,000 per particular person. Waggoner mentioned he expects most passengers, a demographic that tends to be age 65 and up, may have already been vaccinated.
Pictures had been a giant issue within the firm’s resolution to get again on the river.
“We’re like a household enterprise,” Waggoner mentioned. “I needed to ask myself: When am I comfy? When would my spouse be comfy? Our household is dashing to get the vaccine and begin cruising once more.”
Ports resembling Baton Rouge, La., and Natchez, Miss., have been anxious for the riverboats to get again in enterprise. About 30,000 individuals sailed the Mississippi and its tributaries with American Queen Steamboat Co. in 2019 for an estimated influence of round $40 million in key river markets. To indicate Louisiana’s assist, Lt, Gov. Billy Nungesser was among the many dignitaries attending the christening of the American Countess on March 21.
Whereas ships of the American Queen Steamboat Co. enterprise to St. Paul, Minn., and pull up in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, the corporate’s bread and butter is the Mississippi flowing between New Orleans and Memphis.
From New Orleans, the views are all industrial till Baton Rouge, when the panorama all of a sudden turns into a Mark Twain-style land filled with brush and marsh wilderness that hasn’t modified in centuries. From there, each day stops embrace visits to Civil Battle websites such because the Vicksburg Nationwide Army Park, plantation excursions at antebellum mansions, and Delta blues concert events at actor Morgan Freeman’s juke joint in Clarksdale, Miss.
In Helena, Ark.-whose inhabitants barely tops 12,000-there’s a well-liked go to to a Baptist church. “Folks say, ‘Why drop us off on this blighted metropolis?’ however while you hear the gospel choir, it’s superior,” Waggoner says. One other uncommon tour visits the notorious maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary, also referred to as Angola, the place cruisers meet inmates who prepare service canines for disabled veterans.
On board, you can begin your day with biscuits and gravy within the Entrance Porch Café; at evening, a home massive band known as the Steamboat Syncopators performs within the Grand Saloon, which is supposed to resemble Ford’s Theatre. Earlier than or after a cruise, many friends take an organization tour to Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis.
It’s a take a look at the heartland that appeals to even the well-traveled. “Now, they need to keep a bit bit nearer to house, study extra about their very own nation,” Waggoner mentioned.
As if to emphasise that time, nation music legend Lee Greenwood will come onboard in six cruises this 12 months to sing his best hits, which embrace God Bless the usA. On the ships themselves, not a lot consideration is dedicated to the position that Deep South locations have performed in social justice points, each modern and historic. However within the locations they go to, says Waggoner, “we work with the ports to curate experiences that inform the total historical past of the locations.”
Throughout the pandemic, American Queen Steamboat Co. laid off some 700 staff, Waggoner mentioned. A few third have been employed again, a quantity that may improve as extra ships resume cruising.
Waggoner mentioned his explicit enterprise affords benefits, noting, “We are able to get you to a physician or hospital that takes your medical insurance, and that’s essential to a variety of our friends,” not like on ocean ships that journey to overseas ports. The corporate’s well being protocols embrace touchless infrared temperature checks, mask-wearing, and social distancing all through the ship.
American Queen Steamboat Co.’s cruises are already 60% offered out via December, and Waggoner is optimistic about attending to full river capability by Aug. 1. That will flip 2021 into a good 12 months for his firm, a rarity within the cruise business.
“Lots of people have been ready for us to activate the ‘We’re Open’ signal,” he mentioned. “Proper now we’re about the place we ought to be.”