On the new 245-passenger American Countess riverboat, passengers sip complimentary mint juleps on a top deck, masks wrapped around their wrists like bulging bracelets, while the ship's big, red paddle wheel churns through the Mississippi River.
It's a post-pandemic sight to behold -- even if these are not quite post-pandemic times. Still, its mere occurrence puts John Waggoner, founder and chief executive officer of the four-ship American Queen Steamboat Co., in a good position as far as the cruise industry is concerned.
On long, white-and-red-painted boats with open decks cruising the Mississippi, Waggoner sells Americana that's steeped in U.S. history. It's a hot product under the current circumstances, he says.
"There's a big push to buy in America," Waggoner said in an interview. "So: U.S.-flagged vessels, built in America, manned by U.S. employees. I think there's a big move towards that."
There's also the fact that he's allowed to operate while much-larger competitors cannot, including Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line, even mega-river cruise line Viking River Cruises.
Since the cruise industry shut down in March 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has allowed only cruise ships carrying fewer than 250 passengers and crew. Waggoner's four ships are among few of these in the U.S., making them a rare option for millions of American cruise lovers who are otherwise stuck in a holding pattern.
Larger companies are hatching plans to circumvent the CDC's orders by restarting Caribbean-only sailings this summer.
But American Queen is already back in business with two boats -- the American Countess and the smaller, 166-passenger American Duchess -- both operating since mid-March with reduced capacity to allow for social distancing and comply with the 250-person limit.
Its less-luxurious competitor American Cruise Lines also returned to the Mississippi on March 21, and plans to have three boats on the river in April. These include a new, modern, 190-passenger riverboat and two small paddle-wheelers. All will sail at limited capacity, with a vaccine required for departures through April 30. After that, the company plans to require only negative PCR tests.
If the CDC allows it, Waggoner hopes to add the opulent American Queen, the world's largest paddleboat -- which can carry more than 420 passengers -- by the end of May. All three vessels sail the Mississippi and some tributaries: the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee rivers. A fourth riverboat may soon traverse the Columbia and Snake rivers in Washington and Oregon, following the route of 19th-century explorers Lewis and Clark, pending negotiations with those state governments.
There's reason to believe the authorities will bite. In its first few voyages carrying paying customers up and down the Mississippi, American Queen had no confirmed cases of covid-19. That bucks a pattern of positive cases among cruise lines, including small-ship ocean lines SeaDream Yacht Club and Hurtigruten, that has loomed over the cruise industry like a dark cloud.
'AWESOME' BAPTIST CHOIR
While ships of the American Queen Steamboat Co. venture to St. Paul, Minn., and pull up in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, the company's bread and butter is the Mississippi flowing between New Orleans and Memphis.
From New Orleans, the views are all industrial until Baton Rouge, when the landscape suddenly becomes a Mark Twain-style land full of brush and marsh wilderness that hasn't changed in centuries. From there, daily stops include visits to Civil War sites such as the Vicksburg National Military Park, plantation tours at antebellum mansions, and Delta blues concerts at actor Morgan Freeman's juke joint in Clarksdale, Miss.
In Helena-West Helena -- whose population is about 11,000 -- there's a popular visit to a Baptist church. "People say, 'Why drop us off in this blighted city?' but when you hear the gospel choir, it's awesome," Waggoner says.
BETTER THAN 2019
Waggoner said the numbers at American Queen Steamboat are running ahead of 2019 levels. The company saw significant upticks in January, on the heels of the U.S. vaccine rollout, and again in February, when it announced a requirement that guests, crew, and even bus drivers be vaccinated for sailings, starting in July, he said. "We're excited with our sales momentum."
For trips before July, guests are required to take a PCR test during a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay that's included in the price of eight-night sailings. Waggoner said he expects most passengers, a demographic that tends to be age 65 and up, will have already been vaccinated.
Shots were a big factor in the company's decision to get back on the river.
"We're like a family business," Waggoner said. "I had to ask myself: When am I comfortable? When would my wife be comfortable? Our family is rushing to get the vaccine and start cruising again."
Ports such as Baton Rouge and Natchez, Miss., have been anxious for the riverboats to get back in business. About 30,000 people sailed the Mississippi and its tributaries with American Queen Steamboat Co. in 2019 for an estimated financial infusion of around $40 million in key river markets. To show Louisiana's support, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser was among the dignitaries attending the christening of the American Countess on March 21.