A Rendering of Viking Cruise’s upcoming expedition vessel

For years European cruise lines have dominated the river cruise market. Boutique cruises along scenic and historic waterways have proved popular with the European market; proving that European cruise passengers are happy to swap size for service. Meanwhile the US has dominated the ocean waves, producing floating cities that constantly outdo each other in size and spectacle.

The US domestic river cruise market has been considered challenging, with US companies preferring to invest in European river fleets when they do venture away from ocean cruise. For example, Celebrity Cruises offer combined river and cruise options, sailing the Nordic fjords among other European destinations. However, there are rumblings that some cruise lines are poised to move into the US domestic river cruise market.

Viking Cruises to finally enter the market?

Viking Cruises first announced their intention to offer US river itineraries in 2015, although they have kept very quiet on details since then. Now, it seems plans have picked up again with the company reaching an agreement in January 2020 with Hannibal, Missouri. The town have confirmed that they will guarantee Viking a place to dock within their port. Viking have offered no comment, but Hannibal city manager Jeff LaGarce has indicated that he has seen plans that confirm the proposed ships’ capacities to be around the 300 passenger mark. This promises a slender, boutique river cruise design that follows in the mark of the fleet’s European cousins. Associated Press has also reported that Dubuque City Council, Iowa, have approved plans to construct a dock. They intend to split the cost with Viking Cruises.

Expedition announcement

On the same day that the agreement with Hannibal was revealed, Viking released a press statement announcing their move into the expedition cruise market. They have slated two ships, Viking Polaris and Viking Octanis to sail in 2022. Interestingly the first vessel, Viking Octanis, will be counting the Great Lakes in North America as a major port of call.  Of this decision Viking says:

“Viking’s arrival to the Great Lakes will bring the newest and most modern vessels ever to explore this region of North America and will mark a major commitment to local tourism and economic development for the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario.”

The vessels will be delivered in Norway by Fincatiari’s VARD. They will notably be small enough to navigate both remote polar regions and the St Lawrence River. As with the reported plans for their Mississippi river vessels, the ships will host 378 passengers.

American Cruise Lines

If Viking do go ahead with their plans to enter the US domestic river cruise market, they won’t be alone. American Cruise Lines, who are already operating river cruise itineraries within the US, have announced two additional riverboats to be launched in 2021. ACL have found the demand for their existing ships, American Harmony and American Jazz, to outweigh the availability. They are doubling their Mississippi fleet in response. ACL are currently the big name in US domestic river cruise, with a fleet of 12 ships, running itineraries across destinations as diverse as Florida and Alaska.

Market demand

The market demand is there, but companies wishing to break into the US cruise market face challenges. Federal law requires that vessels operating within US domestic waterways be constructed within the US and manned by US crew. Shipyards are already stretched in meeting the current demand for new cruise ships, so it will be interesting to see the impact this growing market has on global leisure shipbuilding.

From a design perspective, Europe has had the first say on river vessel design for years. We can’t wait to see what America has to offer.

Interested in learning more and meeting the biggest names in cruise interiors face-to-face? Then attend Cruise Ship Interiors Expo America, 8-9 June 2021 at the Miami Beach Convention Center!