The American Queen riverboat docked in Baton Rouge Thursday, the first of an expanded 84 scheduled visits that paddle-wheel cruise boats are set to make to the city over the next 11 months.
While officials with Visit Baton Rouge didn’t have hard numbers on the economic impact the riverboats have on the city, Katie Guasco, a spokeswoman for the tourism agency, said the passengers have “an amazing impact on the downtown area.”
“What’s unique about river cruising is the passengers are right in the middle of the attractions when they get off the boat, instead of a cab driving them an hour to an excursion,” she said.
Passengers Chris and David Molineux, of Brisbane, Australia, said they planned on spending “a couple of hundred bucks” during their stop in Baton Rouge.
“If we see something we like, we’ll buy it,” David Molineux said.
Clay Otto and Judy Quehl, both of Vancouver, British Columbia, said they didn’t have any money budgeted for their visit to Baton Rouge. “My sister and I are the shoppers, and we’ll have a good look around,” Quehl said.
Otto joked the amount of money they would spend in Baton Rouge depended on “how many shoe stores” Quehl sees.
Last year, about 5,000 riverboat passengers visited Baton Rouge, Guasco said. The boats, which operate along the lower Mississippi between New Orleans and Memphis, Tennessee, also dock in other cities and towns in the area, including St. Francisville, Darrow and Oak Alley.
Along with the American Queen, the Queen of the Mississippi and the American Eagle also will call on the city. The Queen of the Mississippi and the brand-new American Eagle are both owned by American Cruise Lines and carry 150 passengers.
The American Queen is the larger, carrying up to 400 passengers. American Queen Steamboat Co. boasts that the vessel is the largest steamboat ever built.
About 250 passengers were aboard the American Queen Thursday.
Philipa Blair, Visit Baton Rouge’s director of destination services, said the cold February weather deterred passengers. The American Queen was originally scheduled to arrive Wednesday, but its arrival was pushed back because of the freezing weather in the northern parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. The American Queen will have 290 passengers when it arrives in Baton Rouge next week, and the following stops are all sold out.
Blair and a group of volunteers greeted the passengers who got off the American Queen, giving them Mardi Gras beads with Visit Baton Rouge medallions on them and directing the passengers to tour buses. The buses were bound for attractions ranging from Manchac Swamp to the State Capitol.
“The museums benefit the most from this,” Blair said.
Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said typically “two or three busloads” of passengers from the riverboats stop at the Old State Capitol Museum.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler recently announced plans to operate the Old State Capitol Museum three days a week beginning April 13 as a way of coping with midyear budget cuts. Casper said all efforts would be made to keep the museum open on days when the riverboats are in Baton Rouge, but adjustments may need to be made because of weddings and other previously scheduled events.
Ashley Freeman, operations manager for the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, said while the number of riverboat passengers who visit the River Road museum is “not significant,” she’s hoping the increased docking schedule leads to a change. “We’re really looking forward to seeing an increase in attendance with the new boats,” she said.
Blair also said Baton Rouge benefits from the riverboats because visitors tell their family and friends about the area and may make plans to make another trip.
That’s the case with Cynthia and Lane Weinman, of Palm Springs, California, who sailed on the American Queen in 2013. “Baton Rouge was one of our favorite stops,” Lane Weinman said.
“We’re excited to see the Capitol and to see everything,” Cynthia Weinman said.
While riverboat cruises made regular stops in Baton Rouge for decades, the industry fell on hard times during the Great Recession as people cut back on vacations. Majestic America Line, which had three riverboats stopping in Baton Rouge, went out of business in 2008. Guasco said one boat that called on the city ended up being sold for scrap.
Riverboats returned to the city in 2012. Blair said the industry has made an “incredible amount of progress” in just three years.
The riverboat tours are “very exclusive” and attract international visitors who want to get a taste of life along the Mississippi River, a waterway that looms large in American culture, Guasco said. A nine-day voyage on the American Queen that begins and ends in New Orleans starts at $2,700 for an inside cabin.
The number of riverboats stopping in Baton Rouge should go up in the near future. Earlier this week, Viking River Cruises announced it would make New Orleans the home port for its first North American voyages beginning in 2017.
“We’re certainly hoping with Viking we can grow the number of dockings to beyond 100,” Guasco said.
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.