In a sign that cruising is coming back, a new cruise vessel is christened in New Orleans
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For the first time in more than a year, a cruise vessel has been christened in North America.
Angie Hack, the daughter of American Queen Steamboat Company founder John Waggoner, on Sunday officially named the riverboat line’s newest vessel — American Countess — in New Orleans with the smash of a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon against its hull.
“We have all waited so patiently after a tumultuous year of unknowns, ready more than ever to celebrate the newest darling to the American Queen Steamboat Company,” Hack said in advance of the bottle smash during a ceremony across from the vessel at the Mardi Gras World pavilion. “For so many of us, it’s like hitting the reset button.”
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Speaking to an audience of more than 100 invited guests that included company executives, their friends and family, and local dignitaries, Hack noted the christening originally had been scheduled for early 2020. It was postponed for nearly a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced an unprecedented year-long shutdown of cruising in North America.
“As of Wednesday, we were still holding our breaths,” Hack quipped, referencing a last-minute glitch in the line’s government approvals to sail that was quickly resolved.
As the first christening of any cruise vessel in North America since the coronavirus-caused industry shutdown in March 2020, Sunday’s event is being seen as a milestone moment in what appears to be a budding comeback of cruising in North America.
It comes just a week after another American Queen Steamboat Company riverboat and a small coastal cruiser operated by American Cruise Lines became the first cruise vessels to restart operations in U.S. waters since the pandemic began.
With vaccinations for COVID-19 becoming more available and case counts dropping, several other cruise companies that operate in North America also have recently announced definitive plans to restart voyages in the coming months out of ports in The Bahamas and the Caribbean.
For some cruise industry leaders and tourism officials at Sunday’s American Countess christening, including American Queen Steamboat’s Waggoner, it seemed almost too good to be true that the year-long halt to cruising in North America seemed finally to be coming to an end.
“I can’t believe we’re actually here,” Waggoner said at the start of an address at the event. “I am going to pinch myself here and then start my speech.”
Brandy Christian, the president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, suggested the vessel’s debut was a turning point for the city’s cruise business after a tough year.
“I cannot begin to tell you how excited we are to have this vessel sailing with us today,” she said. “It’s been a long year, a long road. But this day really marks the return of a vital economic engine to our city as well as our state.”
Christian noted that about 90% of people who cruise on ocean and river cruises out of New Orleans come from outside the state, and about 73% of them stay an extra night or two in the city, spending money that helps drive the local economy.
Attendees also heard from the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, Billy Nungesser, who also suggested that the rebound of cruising out of New Orleans was critical to the city and state’s economy. He noted that a record 53.2 million people visited Louisiana in 2019.
“I’m sure that this cruise will help us bounce back to those record-breaking tourism numbers that we saw before the COVID took over this country and the world,” he said.
Docked along the Mississippi River during Sunday’s ceremony, American Countess is designed to travel up and down the river as well as the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. It’s American Queen Steamboat’s fourth river vessel.
Shortly after Sunday’s christening, the newly named riverboat set off with passengers for the first time, heading upriver on the Mississippi on a five-night voyage to Memphis.
Built using the existing hull of a former gaming vessel (the Kanesville Queen), American Countess is designed to offer both the feel of an authentic paddlewheeler and innovative, modern design.
The four-deck-high vessel has forward-facing windows to allow for sightseeing as it rolls along the river. It also has a portside bar with an 80-foot-long wall of windows looking out over the water.
Four options for dining on American Countess include a Grand Dining Room outfitted with custom Italian fabrics and rich walnut accents that also has floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views. There’s also the small bite-serving Grand Bar & Lobby, the casual River Grill and 24-hour room service.
Other features of American Countess include a theater that will offer performances by an onboard theater group and a house band; a library; a card room; a chart room; and a small gym. The vessel has 123 cabins ranging in size from 170 to 255 square feet — some with balconies. Like other American Queen Steamboat riverboats, it travels with “riverlorians” who will recount local river lore and history.
The American Countess was initially designed to cruise with up to 245 passengers. But American Queen Steamboat has made temporary modifications to the vessel (and has had it recertified by the U.S. Coast Guard) to sail with just 166 or fewer passengers.
With the modifications, American Countess will operate with a maximum of just 249 passengers and crew — below the threshold that would make it subject to the current cruising restrictions imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Citing the continuing coronavirus outbreak, the CDC has been blocking cruise vessels that operate with more than 250 passengers and crew from sailing in U.S. waters since March of 2020.
American Queen Steamboat is implementing a long list of new health protocols on American Countess that are aimed at reducing the chances that COVID-19 could spread on vessels.
The new measures include testing all passengers for COVID-19 using a PCR test in advance of sailing and pre-board health screenings. There also will be a mask-wearing requirement on board the vessel in situations where social distancing is not possible.
In addition, all the air conditioning systems on the company’s vessels have been refitted with disinfecting ultraviolet lighting systems, and the vessels will sail with a licensed nurse on board. The company has formed new partnerships with entities in every port it visits to ensure that anyone who becomes sick can get quick care.
Attendees of Sunday’s christening event for the vessel received a PCR test for COVID-19 in advance of attending.
The first cruise of the American Countess that began on Sunday was a non-revenue sailing with company employees, their families and friends, and local officials. The vessel’s first voyage with paying passengers will kick off March 28.
American Countess initially will sail between New Orleans and Memphis but eventually will operate across the entire Mississippi River complex.
Fares for cruises on the American Countess start at $1,999 per person, including shore tours and onboard internet access.
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