Missing riverboats will likely hurt business

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 7, 2009

NATCHEZ — Riverboats have been a part of Natchez since the late 18th century, but now they are gone.

And the effect on the local economy could be major, tourism officials said.

RiverBarge Excursions Lines recently announced all 2009 operations have been curtailed, the Delta Queen has been decommissioned and the American Queen didn’t have any bookings beyond 2008.

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“It’s definitely going to hurt,” Tourism Director Connie Taunton said.

Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Director Marsha Colson said the combined visits of the queens totaled 41 times in 2007 and 28 times in 2008.

“That’s a lot of business,” Colson said.

The profits garnered mostly by the city were from sales tax, Taunton said.

Since meals were served on the boats, and they only docked during the day, no money was spent on restaurants and hotels.

“What is really going to hit us and hurt us is in shopping,” Taunton said.

And shop owners realize that.

“I think it’s going to have a big impact,” said Sarah Roberts, co-owner of Seasons Home Décor and Gifts. “I think pilgrimage is normally good for us, but that only comes twice a year and the boat was coming pretty regularly.

“Without the boats, that’s going to put a damper on us.”

Owner of Natchez Antiques Ricky Smith expects a large drop in revenue.

“It’s very detrimental to us,” he said of the boats no longer coming. “Never did a boat dock that I didn’t do several thousand (dollars in business) the day they were here.

“On a small business that’s a big impact.”

Brenda Zerby, co-owner of Moreton’s Flowerland, said her shop historically has gotten a lot of traffic from the riverboat tourists.

Moreton’s has been open for 35 years, and Zerby said the 70s and 80s were the best times for riverboat tourism.

“There were lots and lots of businesses that did see a generous portion of their sales with people from the boats,” she said.

She said if the had stopped coming in their heyday, the economic effects would have been massive.

“At this point, compared to 15 years ago, it would be much more,” Zerby said.

But still, she said the effects will be noticeable.

Smith said he expects he could lose between $10,000 and $25,000 a month during the high traffic months.

Owner of Sun, Moon and Stars Erin Meyer said the riverboat tourists will be sorely missed.

“We do need them,” she said. “I wish they were still traveling.”

Taunton said this is not the first time the city has braced for the loss of the American Queen and the Delta Queen.

Majestic America Line owns both queens, and two years ago it halted its operations, Taunton said.

“We definitely saw a drop (in revenue,)” Taunton said.

What happened a few years ago is the same situation that is currently taking place with Majestic America Line, Taunton said.

The company is for sale.

“We’re hoping that someone will see the value, buy the company and get the boats back on the river,” Taunton said.

For the Delta Queen, however, it’s going to take an act of law.

Its wooden hull violates the Safety of Life at Sea Act of 1966. However, it has always been exempt. The exemption finally ran out Oct. 31., and the boat has been indefinitely decommissioned.

For Natchez Pilgrimage Tours, a decline in home tours is inevitable, Colson said.

Colson said the RiverBarge tour would bring boatfuls of people who would tour three or four antebellum homes.

Visitors would be entertained onboard by the Holy Family Choir and even head over to the Natchez Association for the Preservation of African-American Culture museum.

The queens would have a three-house tour and each boat would have at least 80 people, Colson said.

“For NPT alone it’s a significant impact,” she said.

Not only was the revenue it brought in beneficial, but the word of mouth exposure was invaluable, Colson said.

Colson said tourism officials are concerned about the loss of the boats.

“We’ve been real worried about that,” Colson said.

RiverBarge officials have stated if the economy climbs back up, tours will resume.

Taunton said she hopes that will happen soon.

“I definitely think that’s going to be a major factor in them coming back,” she said.

Smith said he isn’t holding out hope than any of the three boats will come back.