Starting a duck boat business can be an exciting leap into the tour industry.
The true origin of duck boat tourism dates back to World War II when hybrid vehicles that could operate on land and water were created.
Today, these vehicles are used to give passengers a unique perspective of the city they’re visiting.
In this post, you’ll learn about the latest industry updates in duck boat tours, including new rules proposed to make your tour business as safe and successful as possible.
General Duck Boat Tour Industry Overview Trends
- The U.S. produced about 20,000 military vehicles known as DUKW boats during the war. As early as 1946, a few entrepreneurs started repurposing boat tourism.
- Ten of the 16 remaining World War II-era vessels in operation can be found at National Park Duck Tours in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The operator’s historic fleet of duck boats attracts about 100,000 visitors each year.
- With 92 boats, the Original Wisconsin Ducks have one of the nation’s largest fleets of tour ducks.
- Today, Boston Duck Tours carries 4,600 passengers per day during peak season, compared to 600 on a busy day back in 1994, when the operator first opened its doors.
- On a normal year, the Boston tour operator welcomes 550,000 tourists. But it was hit hard during the pandemic and ridership plummeted. In 2023, the company reported that passengers were returning in ample force.
How many duck boat tours are there in 2023?
As of 2017, there were more than 130 duck boats operating in Branson, the Wisconsin Dells, Boston, Seattle, Miami, San Diego, Honolulu, and Washington.
For instance, The Wisconsin Ducks have one of the largest fleets of duck boats in the country. Their 91 DUKWs date back to WWII.
Who created the first duck boat tour?
Duck boats date back to the Second World War. In 1942, General Motors developed a military-grade vehicle that could operate on both land and water. The vehicles were called DUKWs. Each letter stands for something: “D” is “1942 model,” “U” is “amphibious,” “K” is “all-wheel drive,” and “W” is “dual rear wheels.”
Soldiers simply called them “ducks.”
It wasn’t until 1945, after the war ended, that the vehicles started being used as tour boats. At that time, the military put a few ducks for sale, and Bob Unger, a veteran from Milwaukee, snapped one up. Meanwhile, his friend Mel Flath convinced Unger to bring the DUKW to the Wisconsin Dells at the southern portion of the Wisconsin River.
The duo launched the first tour as the Wisconsin Ducks in the summer of 1946.
How safe are duck boat tours?
Duck boats were originally designed to deliver troops and supplies from water to shore as quickly as possible during an invasion. The boats were very effective in calm water but could be dangerous in rough weather conditions.
That being said, duck boats have been involved in more than 40 fatal accidents since 1999. The most recent accidents include:
- 2015: A Philadelphia duck boat struck a woman and killed her as she was crossing the street. Ride the Duck ceased operations in Philadelphia in 2016.
- 2015: A Seattle duck boat collided with a bus and killed 5 college students.
- 2016: A duck boat struck and killed a woman on a scooter in Boston on April 30.
- 2018: In Branson, Missouri, another accident claimed the lives of 17 people and injured 7. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Ride the Ducks as a result.
Critics say part of the problem is that there are too many agencies regulating the industry, from the U.S. Coast Guard to cities and states with varying safety requirements.
How to keep customers safe on your tours
In 2023, the U.S. Coast Guard issued new rules for the World War II vessels that have been retrofitted for tours.
Operators were told to remove window coverings and canopies from the vehicles or install canopies that don’t keep passengers trapped inside if the boat floats or sinks. The new rules also require passengers to wear personal flotation devices, call for alarms and pumps, and strengthen inspection regulations.
Here are a few more safety measures to consider:
1. Thorough safety briefings
Before the tour starts, provide your passengers with a comprehensive safety briefing. Ensure they’re aware of your evacuation procedures; how to use your life jackets; and what to do in case of an emergency on land versus on water.
2. Make equipment inspections a top priority
Conduct routine checks on duck boats and safety equipment. Ensure engines, hull integrity, life jackets, and other essential gear are in optimal condition through daily pre-tour inspections and scheduled maintenance.
3. Hire an experienced crew and invest in continuous training
Invest in training programs for tour guides and boat captains. Ensure they are proficient in emergency response, passenger management, water safety, and first aid techniques.
4. Carefully monitor the weather
Monitor weather forecasts closely, especially for water-based tours. Establish protocols for tour modification or cancellation based on adverse weather conditions to prioritize passenger safety.
5. Effective communication systems
Equip duck boats with reliable communication systems like marine radios or mobile devices. Conduct regular communication drills to ensure crew members can coordinate swiftly during emergencies.
What do you need to do before starting a duck boat tour business
Starting a new tour business is an exciting yet challenging adventure. Here is an overview of what that process might look like.
1. Do market research and conduct a feasibility study
- Conduct thorough market research to assess the demand for duck boat tours in your chosen location.
- Identify your competitors and study the way they market themselves to their customers.
- Narrow down your target audience and their demographics — including where they live, their interests, and their booking preferences (i.e. online vs. mobile).
- Once you have this down, you can do a feasibility study. By analyzing market trends and potential revenue streams, you can identify whether starting a duck boat tour in this location is truly feasible.
2. Regulatory compliance and permits
- Familiarize yourself with local regulations governing commercial boating operations, as well as rules proposed by the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Transportation, and local maritime agencies.
- Make sure you’re aware of new legislation regarding duck boats specifically, including the new requirements recently proposed by the Coast Guard.
- Obtain necessary permits, licenses, and certifications from relevant authorities. Each duck requires a Coast Guard certificate of inspection, for example. Hire an expert, if needed, to ensure your business complies with safety, environmental, and insurance requirements.
3. Develop a business plan
- Create a comprehensive business plan outlining your company’s goals, target market, marketing strategies, and operational logistics.
- Determine your startup and ongoing costs. Consider how you’re going to fund your business launch.
- Make financial projections based on those costs and your predicted revenue.
4. Determine how much will you spend on boat maintenance, insurance, and safety costs
- Duck boats can cost as much as $78,000. Refurbishing a duck boat for tourism can be very expensive, too. One operator in Washington spent $80,000 restoring a vehicle.
- The average annual cost for boat maintenance and repairs ranges from $1,000 to $5,000 or more.
- The average annual cost of boat insurance premiums ranges from $300 to $500. However, since duck boats operate on both land and water, insurance coverage can get tricky. For example, one operator recounts paying as high as $12,000 per boat just for water insurance.
5. Pick a pricing strategy
- Offer unique tours that differentiate your company from others, allowing you to charge a premium for them.
- Competitive analysis: Analyze what similar operators charge in your area and price your tours competitively.
- Packages: Combine two or more of your tours into a package deal.
- Group rates: Create a group rate option to attract larger groups to your tours.
6. Invest in safety protocols and training
- Develop comprehensive safety protocols and emergency procedures for your duck boat tours.
- Train your crew members in water safety, passenger evacuation drills, first aid, and CPR.
- Ensure that your captains are licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard and that all staff members are knowledgeable about local waterways and potential hazards.
7. Create a marketing plan
- Market your company on social media. Use visual platforms like Instagram and Facebook to share photos from your tours and experiences, connect with new customers, and establish your company’s brand online.
- Invest in paid advertising like paid search ads on Google or social media ads.
- Use SEO to drive new customers to your website. Create keyword-rich content that will attract the right customers looking for duck boat tours in your city.
8. Launch your website and invest in booking software
- Decide on a company name before registering your business and launching a website. Make it catchy and hint at the nature of the experiences you offer.
- Check if the website domain is available, and then purchase it. Spend some time designing a website that aligns with your brand.
- Research and invest in the best booking software for duck boat tour operators.
For those entering the exciting world of duck boat tourism, let this industry update guide you to success.