Early last year, luxury liner Viking River Cruises unveiled plans to make New Orleans the home port for its first North American itineraries, an ambitious venture that would create hundreds of new jobs and ferry passengers along the Mississippi River as far north as Minnesota.
But more than a 1½ years later, Viking — a major provider of high-end river cruises on other continents — has faced unexpected regulatory hurdles that have caused significant delays.
Facing a looming deadline, Louisiana Economic Development leaders are working to sign an extension with the luxury cruise company that would put in place a new time frame for Viking to launch local operations and still benefit from a $4.5 million incentive package offered to lure it to the state.
"The company has faced maritime regulatory challenges with the Jones Act that were not anticipated at the time of the original announcement in 2015, so the amended agreement represents Louisiana’s acknowledgement of those hurdles and our willingness, along with the Port of New Orleans, to continue working with Viking River Cruises in pursuit of a successful project with great economic development potential," Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson said last week.
In a high-profile announcement last year, Viking officials laid out the European company's vision of having two new specially built riverboats setting sail from docks near the French Quarter, with an eye toward building four more in the first three years — at a cost of up to $100 million apiece.
But few new details have publicly emerged since. Some officials and industry observers had speculated that it was due to issues with Viking obtaining a waiver to the federal Jones Act, which requires that travel between U.S. ports be done on U.S. built and crewed vessels.
"I think they can overcome it," said Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans. "It's just a mystery to me as to why they haven't, but I don't think that's insurmountable."
At the announcement last year, former Gov. Bobby Jindal stood alongside Viking officials and boasted that the effort would create 416 new jobs in Louisiana for the company's local operations and vessel crews, paying $40,000 on average, plus benefits.
State economic leaders had worked to lure the luxury cruise company since late 2013, including a face-to-face meeting between Jindal and Viking Cruises Chairman Torstein Hagen at the company’s headquarters in Switzerland.
The river cruises were slated to make 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.
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.
Asked about the timeline of Viking's plans, a company spokesman deferred.
"We are actively working with relevant authorities to launch on the Mississippi River, but at this point in time, we do not have any details to share regarding product specifics or a launch timeline," Ian Jeffries, a Viking spokesman, said in an email last week.
Some industry experts note that Viking has had a busy few years adding to its portfolio. Founded in Russia in 1997, the company's fleet has grown to 59 vessels, which offer scenic high-end cruising trips along the rivers of Europe, Russia, Egypt and elsewhere.
"I think they're simply too busy doing what they're doing, and what they announced here was a tall order," said Oivind Mathisen, editor of Cruise Industry News, a newsletter for cruise industry executives.
Despite the nostalgia, Viking's plans to add a half-dozen vessels and capacity for 1,800 passengers might have been a big bet, Mathisen added. "Whether the market will go for it is a different story," he said.
Meanwhile, some officials in areas along the planned route say they haven't heard much lately about the river cruises.
"We are continuing to build or to go through the process of designing and building a port for riverboats, but Viking is not the only riverboat that lands here," said West Feliciana Parish President Kevin Couhig.
Though Viking offers a high-end luxury travel experience, the area offers coastal and Mississippi River cruises throughout the year. American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Co. both sail paddle-wheeler river-cruising from the Crescent City.
In West Feliciana, the boats bring people for a day to visit St. Francisville, where they can visit shops and eat in local restaurants. "It's just kind of a good open door for the parish to showcase itself to visitors from all over the world," Couhig said.
Despite almost two years having gone by, LaGrange would still welcome Viking's arrival but said the port can't wait much longer for a decision.
"There are other opportunities and other interests that want to bring other additional inland tours and vessels into the city," he said. "We can't just sit around waiting for Viking to make a final decision," he added.