Viking to make New Orleans home port for high-end river cruises

Posted on: February 25 2015

By: Richard Thompson, The Advocate

Viking River Cruises, a major provider of high-end river cruises on other continents, will make New Orleans the home port for its first North American itineraries, which will travel along the Mississippi River as far north as Minnesota, the company and state officials announced Tuesday.

In 2017, the European company plans to launch two new specially built riverboats from docks near the French Quarter. Plans call for building four more vessels in the first three years, at a price tag of up to $100 million apiece.

The cruises will take travelers up the Mississippi, with stops in St. James, East Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes before continuing upriver to Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis; or St. Paul, Minnesota, depending on the season.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who attended Tuesday’s announcement at the Port of New Orleans, said Viking’s decision will lead to 416 new jobs in Louisiana for its local operations and vessel crews, paying $40,000 on average, plus benefits.

“When you look at Viking River Cruises’ clientele, these tend to be tourists who are coming from outside of our state,” Jindal said. “These tend to be tourists who are high-end tourists, who will be spending a lot of money, not only on Viking River Cruises but here in the city of New Orleans.”

The luxury riverboats will carry up to 300 passengers, a majority of whom are expected to have traveled to New Orleans from out-of-state. That’s welcome news to local hospitality officials, always eager to draw business to the city’s hotels, bars and restaurants.

In 2012, a port-commissioned study reported that passengers on cruise ships based in the city stay an average of 1.8 nights in local hotels before or after their voyage, contributing $27.9 million annually in direct spending on lodging, food and other expenses.

Founded in Russia in 1997, Viking has grown from four ships to 60, making it the world’s leading river cruise line. It is known for offering itineraries that mix cosmopolitan ports — think Amsterdam, Cairo and Shanghai — and smaller areas of interest. The cruises also feature a cultural component that highlights local history through offerings such as lectures, language classes and cooking demonstrations.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Viking’s local presence “will generate major opportunities for our citizens, boost our tourism industry and continue to turbocharge the Port of New Orleans.”

State economic officials began trying to lure the luxury cruise company in late 2013. Jindal said he met with Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen at the company’s headquarters in Switzerland last month during an economic-development trip to Europe.

To help seal the deal, the state offered Viking an incentive package that included a $4.5 million performance-based grant for site work and participation in LED FastStart, the state’s workforce development program.

Elsewhere along the Mississippi, officials celebrated the company’s anticipated arrival.

“It will have a significant economic impact in West Feliciana,” Parish President Kevin Couhig said, calling it “a welcome tourism opportunity.”

The company’s local expansion comes at a time when interest in river cruising has gained momentum. American Cruise Lines announced this monththat it will bring a second riverboat to New Orleans to offer Mississippi River cruises to Memphis, with Louisiana stops in Oak Alley, Baton Rouge and St. Francisville.

David Pearlman, an associate professor at the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism Administration at the University of New Orleans, said he expects the river cruises will largely appeal to veteran travelers.

“It’s obviously not going to be the ‘get drunk, try to pick up women, the whole “Love Boat” ’ thing,” he said. “It’s obviously not going to be that kind of market at all. I’m going to think they’re more of a cultural traveler than a cruise traveler.”