River boat tourism on the rise in lower Mississippi River region

by George Jared ([email protected]) 3,384 views 

American Queen Steamboat cruise ship.

River boats filled with tourists are becoming more common along the Mississippi River and it could provide an economic spark for the city of Memphis and parts of Northeast Arkansas.

AAA Travel advisors reported a significant increase in U.S. river cruise interest and bookings. The latest data from AAA Travel shows that 2022 domestic river cruise bookings have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, up 25% from 2019 year-to-date.

“U.S. river cruising offers a completely unique travel experience, especially when compared to traditional oceanic voyages,” said Jan Borje, vice president of travel services, AAA Missouri. “The modest passenger guest counts on many domestic river cruises create an intimate and personalized setting that more and more travelers are seeking.”

Renovations have been ongoing along Memphis’ riverfront to accommodate more tourist traffic from the river boats. The Beale Street Landing was completed in 2014 to accommodate boats that are up to 400 feet in length. River boats landing there were up 32% in 2019, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The economic impacts to the region from river boat tourists visiting the region are expected to exceed $100 million annually by 2022.

Other cities that border Memphis, such as West Memphis and South Haven, Miss., are expected to feel the impacts as well. Southland Casino and the Sultana Museum, west of the river, are a short distance to travel for the tourists who decide to spend a day or more in the region.

River cruising, which originally gained popularity for European destinations, is continuing to grow in the U.S. with cruise companies providing more options to those looking to set sail. American Queen Voyages, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, started with namesake American Queen ushering in a renaissance in U.S. river cruising and has expanded to four paddle-wheelers sailing not only the Mississippi River, but the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Illinois rivers and Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, European river cruise company Viking River Cruises announced it will soon sail on the Mississippi River for the first time.

U.S. river cruise travelers will find ships typically accommodate around 300 guests, much less than the 3,000 guests like on many larger oceanic vessels. However, the smaller ship size does not take away from the all-inclusive cruise experience. Whether on an eight or sixteen-day voyage, river ships include all the amenities even the most experienced sailors come to expect like fine dining, live entertainment, and on-board activities.

A recent AAA Travel survey found that 58.3 million (23%) Americans are considering a cruise, whether river or oceanic, in the next two years.

“U.S. river cruising offers the historic feel of a traditional river boat with all the modern amenities,” Borje said. “It allows travelers of all ages to experience a piece of American history in a unique way.”