(6:30 p.m. EST) -- Viking Cruises, an industry leader in river cruises in Europe and Asia, is expanding into the United States by developing a homeport in New Orleans.
The news came out Tuesday at a press conference at the Port of New Orleans held by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and attended by Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen. Viking Cruises will operate cruises on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, joining American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company, two lines that already have ships on the river.
Six new ships will debut in a three-year period, with the first one coming in spring 2017. All six will be built in U.S. shipyards; they will cost between $90 million and $100 million each to build. Each will accommodate around 300 to 380 passengers and will be built in Viking's sleek European style, as opposed to paddlewheels, according to Gary LaGrange, President and CEO of the Port of New Orleans.
Itineraries will take passengers along the Mississippi, with port stops in spots like Memphis, Tennessee; St. Louis; and St. Paul, Minnesota. By having New Orleans as a homeport, Viking will be in a position to expand along tributaries such as the Ohio as well, LaGrange said. "They could go as far up as Pittsburgh."
"We are excited about the prospect of bringing modern river-cruising to the Mississippi, a river that has been traveled by explorers for centuries," Hagan said in the release. "We know our passengers will enjoy the rich history, culture and cuisine of all the great cities and towns along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Paul."
Viking will dock its river ships at the Bienville Street Wharf, right next to the Steamboat Natchez paddle wheel and walking distance to the French Quarter. "(Passengers will) be in Cafe du Monde in a few minutes," LaGrange said.
According to the release, the state of Louisiana offered Viking an incentive package. However, unlike the mainstream cruise ships that dock in New Orleans, Viking's smaller ships will not need expansive infrastructure. The port plans to build a bus terminal to drop off passengers and a lot to allow access for service trucks, LaGrange said.
A Viking spokesperson said the cruise line will provide further information later on this year.
Viking has been aggressively adding to its fleet over the past few years, building dozens of river ships each year. It also is moving into the ocean market with Viking Star, a 928-passenger ship that debuts in April with innovations like a cantilevered infinity pool and a snow grotto in the spa that allows cruisers to go from snowflakes to sauna -- a centuries-old Nordic tradition.
Viking coming to the Mississippi River means a big boost for river cruises in the United States, which has not seen the boom that has taken place in Europe before now.
"We welcome the competition and any development that continues to put the spotlight on U.S. river cruising," said Ted Sykes, President of American Queen Steamboat Company.
--By Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor, and Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor