Staff Columnist

Mississippi River tourism suffers under outdated federal regulations

Law signed by Grover Cleveland may make river cruises more expensive

Dubuque, city of. Roberts River Rides: Robert Kehl, the famous riverboat Chef, has perfected his special recipe for delicious prime rib,
Dubuque, city of. Roberts River Rides: Robert Kehl, the famous riverboat Chef, has perfected his special recipe for delicious prime rib, "The Best in the Midwest." Experience the dinner cruise or one of many other excursions on the Mississippi River May through October on Roberts River Rides. Roberts has the Spirit of Dubuque (left), a 377-passenger paddlewheeler, that offers afternoon sightseeing excursions as well as the dinner and dance cruises. Or try the 800-passenger Mississippi Belle II and take a daylong scenic river cruise. Photo 1987.

Plans for cruise ships on the Mississippi River may be back on track after months of uncertainty.

The European company Viking Cruises has discussed plans to bring cruise ships to the Mississippi River over the last few years, but the project seemed doomed last year in the face of overbearing federal regulations. Now those plans are back on track, which could be a major tourism boon for Iowa’s river towns.

“The Mississippi market is well-underserved. ... Our past passengers are asking for the Mississippi,” David Simmons, a consultant with Viking Cruises, told Dubuque City Council members during a meeting last month.

You can blame the holdup on former President Grover Cleveland. The Passenger Vessel Services Act, signed Cleveland in 1886, requires passenger vessels in U.S. ports to be built and operated domestically, which significantly increases building costs.

Viking Cruises has found a workaround. The Swiss company will contract with Edison Chouest, which operates a shipyard in Louisiana. The American company will build and own the watercraft, which Viking Cruises will operate.

“Everything is legal, everything is set up properly. It just took a long time to make sure we were doing the right things. We had no intentions of doing the wrong things and no intention of trying to change the law,” Simmons said.

I’m glad the ships are coming, but frustrated to see there’s little effort to reform such a bad law.

Regulatory finessing and domestic manufacturing has already delayed plans for more river cruises, and it also increases the cost of doing business on the Mississippi, which ultimately will be passed along to consumers. It’s just one example of Americans suffering under century-old laws, which were meant to protect U.S. industries but have long outlived their usefulness.

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Waterways once were a dominant means of commercial and passenger transport, but they’ve given way to roads and railroads over many decades. Now tourism projects like this are returning focus to our rivers.

Viking Cruise’s planned route for the upper Mississippi spans from St. Louis to St. Paul, with eight stops, including Burlington, Davenport and Dubuque. Company representatives are working with local government officials to update port infrastructure.

Several passenger ships operate on the Mississippi, but Viking Cruises ships would be larger than most, bringing nearly 400 passengers for full-day stops in Iowa towns. Cruise-goers have plenty of money and free time, prime targets for the businesses that make up Iowa’s tourism industry. Tourism already supports more than 350,000 jobs along the upper Mississippi, according to the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association.

Viking Cruises is a major player in the global cruise market, already claiming about half the market share for European river cruises. Large firms like that are sometimes able to overcome the regulatory burdens imposed by the federal government, as we see here, but smaller companies can’t compete. Until policymakers are willing to revisit badly outdated laws, we might never realize the full potential of our rivers.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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