HOUMA, La. — A Swiss company's plan to offer tourists cruises along the length of the Mississippi River drew a step closer to reality this week as its new 386-passenger ship was floated out of a south Louisiana shipyard.
Viking River Cruises of Basel, which in 2015 announced the plans for Mississippi River cruises, toasted the completion of the Viking Mississippi in a celebration Monday at a Houma shipyard.
Two U.S. companies already offer cruises up and down the river, which flows 2,350 miles (3,780 kilometers) from its source at Minnesota's Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. American Queen Voyages, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and American Cruise Lines, based in Guilford, Connecticut, expect to carry a total of 50,000 people on the Mississippi this year, spokespeople said.
The Viking Mississippi is billed by the Swiss competitor as "the largest and most modern ship in the region." It is to make its first voyage in June between New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota — a trip that would take about 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) by car but is about 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) on the twisting river.
"It is a proud moment that this new ship has met an American waterway for the first time," Torstein Hagen, chairman of Viking, said in a news release. "Our guests have long wanted to sail the Mississippi River with Viking, and we very much look forward to welcoming them on board this summer."
Company officials said the Viking Mississippi is expected to draw more than 7,500 passengers to the river this year and more than 17,600 during the first full sailing season in 2023.
The Viking Mississippi plans stops in seven states: Louisiana (Baton Rouge, Darrow, New Orleans and St. Francisville); Mississippi (Natchez and Vicksburg); Tennessee (Memphis); Missouri (Hannibal, St. Louis); Iowa (Burlington, Dubuque and Davenport); Wisconsin (La Crosse); and Minnesota (Red Wing, St. Paul).
Meanwhile, American Queen has three paddlewheel cruise boats that operate on the Mississippi, the smallest able to carry 166 passengers and the largest 417, spokesperson Michael Hicks said. He added that American Queen expects about 20,000 passengers on the Mississippi River this year.
American Cruise Lines has two paddlewheelers and three modern riverboats on the river and plans to launch a fourth modern riverboat late this year, spokesperson Alexa Paolella said. Both also operate in other parts of the United States. She said the boats will carry 30,000 on Mississippi River routes this year.
American Cruise Lines' 15 river and coastal cruise ships all were upgraded during the off-season, with the most extensive work on the line's four paddlewheelers, a company news release said Wednesday.
"Viking's boat will also be lovely, but American Cruise Lines' new modern series riverboats are equally if not more beautiful," Paolella wrote in an email.