Cruising on US waterways could resume this weekend following a year-long shutdown
It could be several more months before ocean cruises restart out of U.S. ports. But in the latest sign that cruising is on the cusp of a comeback, it looks like small-ship cruising on U.S. rivers and intracoastal waterways could restart as early as this weekend.
With COVID-19 vaccinations becoming more widely available and case counts falling across the country, two small cruise operators that specialize in small-ship cruises on U.S. waterways -- American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company -- are quietly moving forward with plans to restart limited departures on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
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Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines plans to restart operations on Saturday with a single vessel, the 100-passenger Independence. It sails week-long voyages along the intracoastal waterways of Georgia and South Carolina.
Indiana-based American Queen Steamboat Company's restart on Sunday also will be with a single vessel, the 166-passenger American Duchess. It operates on the Mississippi River.
“Coming off the heels of an unprecedented year, we are looking forward to the future and being able to welcome aboard our loyal guests once again as we continue to offer amazing experiences," American Queen Steamboat Company CEO and founder John Waggoner said in a statement sent to TPG. "We have a great deal to be excited about and have focused on every detail so that we can provide the safest cruising experiences possible."
The American Duchess sailing that American Queen Steamboat is planning this weekend is a seven-night Mississippi River sailing between New Orleans and Memphis. The Independence sailing that American Cruise Lines is planning is a seven-night sailing between Jacksonville, Florida, and Charleston, South Carolina.
Both of the lines are implementing a long list of new health protocols for the trips.
For the American Duchess sailing, all passengers will be tested for COVID-19 before they board, and passengers will undergo temperature checks. There also will be a mask-wearing requirement on board the vessel.
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In addition, all of the air conditioning systems on the American Duchess have been refitted with disinfecting ultraviolet lighting systems, and the vessel will be sailing with a licensed nurse onboard. The company has formed new partnerships with entities in every port it visits to ensure that anyone who becomes sick could get quick care.
Among a long list of measures, American Cruise Lines will require passengers to show a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding Independence and wear masks while on board the vessel. The ship also will sail with a certified medical officer who will perform a brief preboarding health screening of each passenger.
Cabins on American Cruise Lines vessels have independent HVAC systems with no shared ducting between rooms or public spaces.
Both lines plan to slowly add more departures and ships to their schedules over the coming months.
At American Cruise Lines, the current plan is to add a second vessel -- the 190-passenger American Jazz -- to operations later this month for sailings on the Mississippi River. As of now, the ship is scheduled to begin seven-night trips between New Orleans and Memphis on March 21.
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More ships in American Cruise Line's 13-ship fleet will restart operations later this spring and over the summer, a spokesperson told TPG.
American Cruise Lines offers a wide range of small-ship cruises across the U.S. including sailings on the Mississippi River and its tributaries; in the Pacific Northwest (on the Columbia and Snake rivers and also in Puget Sound); in Alaska; and in many areas along the East Coast.
American Queen Steamboat also plans to have a second vessel in operation later this month: The line's new paddlewheeler, American Countess. Scheduled to be christened on March 21 in New Orleans, it'll depart on an initial nonrevenue "preview cruise" on the Mississippi River with company executives, vendors and some media on board later that day before beginning regular sailings on March 28.
Both of the lines operate vessels that are so small, they aren’t covered under the current cruising restrictions imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC has kept cruise lines that operate big ships from sailing from U.S. ports for the past 12 months. And, even with case counts falling across the country, the agency isn't expected to allow big ships to resume sailings in U.S. waters for at least several more months. But the CDC's prohibition on cruises doesn't apply to small vessels of the sort operated by American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat.
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Instead, American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat need approval to operate from various states and local port towns that their vessels visit.
With as few as 50 rooms each and a cruising style that often finds them tied up along the waterfront of a U.S. town or city, American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat vessels are more akin to boutique hotels than traditional cruise ships. Many hotels in the country, of course, have been open for many months.
"With our new protocols in place, we remain dedicated to the safety of our guests, crew and the communities we visit," American Cruise Lines spokesperson Alexa Paolella said in a statement to TPG. "We look forward to exploring this beautiful country aboard our small 100 [to]190 passenger modern riverboats and small coastal ships."
The possible restart of small-ship cruising in U.S. waters comes amidst other signs that cruising could be on the cusp of a comeback in at least some parts of the world.
Earlier this month, Royal Caribbean announced that rising vaccination rates in Israel would allow it to start Mediterranean cruises out of the country in May. And the U.K. government this week said that cruises out of U.K. ports could restart in May, too. In both cases, the trips will be available to local residents only.
Cruising also has resumed in a very limited way out of Italy and in the Canary Islands.
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