Downtown Baton Rouge’s beginnings as a trading post on the river are once again being invoked by the regular arrival of riverboat cruises.
Starting in April, three cruise companies will make Baton Rouge one of their stops on the pleasure cruises that bring to life a vital part of American history along the mighty Mississippi River.
The Great American Steam Boat Co. will have 13 Baton Rouge stops; American Cruise Lines, nine stops; and Blount Small Ship Adventures, two stops.
Of these, we are most excited about the American Queen, originally built in 1995 and refurbished by The Great American Steam Boat Co. It is an elaborate replica of the floating palaces that were the 19th century’s equivalent of luxury cruise liners.
As the nation reflects on the Civil War, which began 150 years ago this year, the time for river cruises might be right. Not only the novelty and beauty of river travel but the chance to get off the ship and visit historic downtowns from New Orleans to cities as far north as Cincinnati and Minneapolis is a draw for travelers.
Downtown Baton Rouge was itself a Civil War battlefield, and the savage fighting at Port Hudson was one of the significant battles of the war.
There are other good tie-ins with history that are coming up, including the 200th anniversary of Louisiana’s statehood next year.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, the state’s top tourist official, said the state and its local partners, such as the Baton Rouge Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, will be promoting these anniversaries to draw visitors, including international visitors. Travelers from other countries, Dardenne told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, typically stay longer — and thus spend more money.
“We have a cultural diversity that does not exist in any other state in America,” Dardenne said.
He is right, and the riverboat cruises are one more way to showcase that history.
While New Orleans is the great tourist draw in Louisiana, there is no reason Baton Rouge and other cities — particularly Lafayette, with its French heritage and culture — cannot also be tourist destinations.
While the riverboats are welcome, it’s important that our visitors have a pleasant experience when they step off the ships.
The identity of Baton Rouge is after all not based on suburban strip malls that American visitors can see any day of the week in their home communities. Rather, it is in downtown — truly the living room of Baton Rouge, the place where visitors go to visit museums, purchase souvenirs at the museum shops, and eat our great cuisine while looking at the river.
The reappearance of the cruise business is only a small part of the return from continued development and investment in downtown, with public and private dollars. We who are proud to call Baton Rouge home want to put our best face forward in downtown.