River tourism on the rise in the lower Mississippi region

Riverboats full of 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 have reported a significant increase in interest and bookings for river cruises in the United States. The latest data from AAA Travel shows domestic river cruise bookings in 2022 surpassed pre-pandemic levels, up 25% from 2019 year-to-date.

“River cruising in the United States offers a very unique travel experience, especially when compared to traditional ocean travel,” said Jan Borje, vice president of travel services, AAA Missouri. “The lowly guest passenger relies on many domestic river cruises to create the intimate, personalized setting that more and more travelers are seeking.”

Renovations are underway along the Memphis River to accommodate more tourist traffic from riverboats. Beale Street Landing was completed in 2014 to accommodate boats up to 400 feet in length. Riverboats landing there increased 32% in 2019, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Economic impacts to the region from riverboat tourists visiting the region are expected to exceed $100 million per year by 2022.

Other Memphis border towns, such as West Memphis and South Haven, Mississippi, are also expected to feel the effects. The Southland Casino and the Sultana Museum, west of the river, are a short walk away for tourists who decide to spend a day or more in the area.

River cruises, which originally grew in popularity for European destinations, continue to grow in the United States, with cruise lines offering more options for those looking to set sail. American Queen Voyages, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, began with the namesake American Queen, ushering in a renaissance of river cruising in the United States and has expanded to four paddle steamers sailing not only the Mississippi River, but also on the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, Illinois and Columbia Rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, European river cruise company Viking River Cruises has announced that it will soon be sailing the Mississippi River for the first time.

US river cruisers will find ships that can accommodate around 300 guests, far less than the 3,000 guests found on many large ocean-going vessels. However, the ship’s smaller size doesn’t detract from the all-inclusive cruise experience. Whether it’s an eight or sixteen day voyage, river vessels include all the amenities even the most seasoned sailors expect, such as fine dining, live entertainment and onboard activities.

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

“River cruising in the United States offers the historic feel of a traditional riverboat with all the modern conveniences,” Borje said. “It allows travelers of all ages to experience a piece of American history in a unique way.”

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