It's not exactly a return to the golden age of river boats, with visions of a young Mark Twain piloting a steamboat along the mighty Mississippi River.
But as New Orleans celebrates its tricentennial next year, two more riverboats — both former casinos slated for extensive renovations — will begin operating near the French Quarter.
Last week, Hospitality Enterprises New Orleans announced that it has purchased the City of Evansville, which became Indiana's first gaming riverboat in 1995.
The boat, which was owned by Tropicana Entertainment, left its longtime home in Evansville last week for some prep work before beginning its trip to Louisiana, only days after the gambling giant opened a new, multimillion-dollar land-based casino and entertainment facility not far away.
The riverboat will travel first to Morgan City, where it will undergo renovations and be renamed the Riverboat Louis Armstrong, according to Warren Reuther Jr., president and CEO of Hospitality Enterprises, which also owns the New Orleans-based Creole Queen.
The 3,000-passenger Louis Armstrong is slated to operate as a floating jazz club and restaurant, opening in time for Carnival. It can hold more than three times as many passengers as the Creole Queen.
Meanwhile, the New Orleans Steamboat Co., which owns the Natchez, is also adding a second riverboat next year?— the City of New Orleans, which will operate from the Lower Bienville Street Wharf.
The 189-foot-long, 55-foot-wide riverboat will have three enclosed decks and will be licensed to carry more than 1,000 passengers, which its owners expect will make it an attractive venue for weddings and group outings.
The riverboat formerly operated as the Casino Rock Island in northwest Illinois, but it closed nearly a decade ago, replaced by a land-based casino, and has sat docked since then.
Like the Natchez and the Creole Queen, the City of New Orleans is expected to offer harbor and dinner cruises, whereas the larger Louis Armstrong will spend the bulk of its time docked at the riverfront.
The city hosted a record 10.5 million visitors last year, its highest number since 2004 and a nearly 7 percent jump from 2015, according to a study by the University of New Orleans’ Hospitality Research Center. Those visitors spent $7.4 billion, a record amount that was up almost 5 percent from 2015.
Those numbers are expected to keep climbing. "The convention calendar is chockablock full," said Leonard Wormser, senior vice president at Hospitality Real Estate Counselors, a hotel brokerage firm. "Not only is 2018 good — we always knew 2018 was going to be good — but 2019 is shaping up to be a very good year, as is the end of 2017."
Now, for hospitality leaders, the prospect of adding two new riverboats will be just another plus as the city's riverfront undergoes its own redevelopment into potentially the longest swath of uninterrupted public riverfront in the country.
"You've got to keep adding, and this boat here is New Orleans' newest attraction," Reuther said of the Riverboat Louis Armstrong.
Both vessels will arrive as the nostalgia-fueled desire for river cruising has seemingly caught on with a new wave of travelers eager for a unique experience.
Of course, for travelers looking for a longer river cruising experience, several high-end companies, including American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Co., offer paddlewheel trips north from the Crescent City along the lower Mississippi River and as far as Minnesota.
In August, American Queen christened a second riverboat, the American Duchess, in New Orleans.
To much fanfare more than two years ago, the luxury line Viking River Cruises?unveiled plans to make New Orleans the home port for its first North American itineraries, an ambitious venture that promised to create hundreds of new jobs.
But those plans have seemingly stalled. Viking — a major provider of high-end river cruises on other continents — says it has faced unexpected regulatory hurdles that have caused significant delays.
Louisiana's director of economic development, Don Pierson, last week said officials "continue to hold great interest for Viking," but he offered no further timeline. He also stressed that Viking has received "no incentive dollars" from the state at this point.
Meanwhile, the lower-cost harbor cruises and?new floating entertainment venue will add new attractions to the French Quarter riverfront as plans proceed to turn the Gov. Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves into public park, extending public access along the river all the way from Crescent Park in Bywater and Marigny to the Moonwalk and Woldenberg Riverfront Park in the Quarter.
As states along the Mississippi River began to legalize riverboat gambling, beginning in 1989 in Iowa and two years later in Louisiana, some aging riverboats found a second act, while other boats were built anew. But since then, the gaming industry changed: Cruising the river became expensive, and more and more states, including Louisiana, allowed the riverboats to remain permanently docked.
More recently, the vessels have fallen out of favor entirely, as gambling companies have instead looked to build new land-based casinos that can offer more amenities, leaving the riverboats to sit idle while their owners searched for buyers.
In New Orleans, where tourism has boomed in recent years, riverboat owners say they've seen a spike in interest not seen in more than three decades, which will likely be enough to accommodate another two boats.
"The business has come back, and it's very strong, and we feel that a new boat is justified and that we can keep it busy," said Gordon Stevens, president and CEO of New Orleans Steamboat Co.
In the larger Riverboat Louis Armstrong, some longtime hospitality leaders see a sort of reincarnation?of an earlier vessel, the President, a sidewheel riverboat that was a local landmark for decades, hosting concerts and cruises until it was sold in the mid-1980s and later converted into a riverboat casino.
For some, it's already bringing back decades-old memories of high school dances and rock concerts.
"The President was the place to be on the weekend," said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. "It was great for visitors, but the people who lived here totally got into it."
Revamping older riverboats offers a few advantages over building newer models.
"The riverboat gambling vessels didn't put a lot of hours onto their engines, so that part of the mechanics is in good shape," Stevens said. "To build something similar in size and new is really prohibitive, compared to buying one and renovating it."
Renovations to the City of New Orleans are expected to cost as much as $8.5 million, Stevens said. He declined to say how much the boat cost except that it was "very inexpensive."
For his part, Reuther spent two years looking for the right riverboat to become the Louis Armstrong.
"We get big conventions that come into the city and would love to hear jazz on the river," he said.
The inspiration for the idea came from Louis Armstrong's own life story. Too young to play trumpet in the city's bars, Armstrong instead played on the docks near where steamboats stopped along the Mississippi River, eventually making his way onboard.
Like the President, the Louis Armstrong is a sidewheel paddleboat. At 310 feet long by 70 feet wide, it will take about three weeks for it to get from Evansville to Morgan City. The boat's smokestacks are 98 feet tall and have to be taken down because of bridges along the way, which top out at roughly 70 feet, Reuther said.
At this point, Reuther plans to have a "foundation" room on the riverboat's third floor, and he's talked with the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation in New York about displaying some artifacts and memorabilia from the famed trumpet player. But overall he plans to keep the interior modest, adding that he does not yet have a cost estimate.
"We don't want to make it Hollywood, and we don't want to make it Vegas," Reuther said. "We want it to be like Preservation Hall on the water, where people can come and listen to jazz, and then we'll have a dance floor and people can dance."