Mississippi River Towns Face Economic Loss as River Cruises Dwindle

For years, Mississippi River towns like Cape Girardeau have benefited from occasional visits from sternwheel riverboats. Not this year.

The Majestic America Line operates the American Queen and the Mississippi Queen. RiverBarge Excursions operates the River Explorer. Both companies, citing the poor economy and other factors such as rising costs and dwindling numbers of tourists, have called off cruises in the central U.S. this year.

The shutdowns are bad news for Cape Girardeau. The cruises would often stop in the southeast Missouri town, where those on board would get off to shop and eat.

Repeated flooding last year reduced the number of times the cruise ships docked at Cape Girardeau. Majestic America had already lost the ability to operate its oldest boat, the Delta Queen, due to a federal law that bans overnight excursion boats with wooden superstructures. The Delta Queen operated for years with an exemption to that law, but Congress was unwilling to extend it.

The visitors who reached Cape Girardeau on the river cruises were a small but important part of the total tourism picture for the city. With cruises costing $3,000 to $5,000 or more and taking seven to 10 days to complete, they generally were filled with well-to-do people who had time to devote to travel, said Chuck Martin of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"A whole lot of these things are noncontrollable items," Martin said. "I like to see the boats coming, especially the Queens. I hate to see all that come to an end. Fortunately for us, we do have an awful lot of other things to offer."

The Convention and Visitor's Bureau this year is focusing its advertising on nearby towns rather than a wider regional market.

"We have definitely tightened our radius as far as reaching out to the audience," he said. "Travel is driven by disposable income, and while people are not eliminating travel, they are not traveling as far."