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Regional Interests

Astoria and coastal communities continue to suffer from lack of cruise ship tourism

Astoria, Oregon, along with other coastal communities, is dependent on tourist dollars.
Astoria, Oregon, along with other coastal communities, is dependent on tourist dollars.

Before the pandemic, Astoria was welcoming thousands of tourists on cruises who would spend the day in town when their ship docked. The number of cruise ships stopping in Astoria was at an all-time high when the pandemic shut down cruise business altogether. Will Isom, executive director at the Port, says they saw no passenger cruises in 2020 or 2021. We talk with Isom about how the region has weathered this significant loss in tourism and what he expects to see this fall.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. The port of Astoria announced recently that no oceangoing passenger cruise ships are going to stop in Astoria this year. After the complete pandemic shutdown of 2020, there’d been hope that 2021 would be different. It’s not going to be. It is an economic hit to a city in a region that’s highly dependent on tourism of all kinds. Will Isom is the Executive Director of the Port of Astoria. He joins us now. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Will Isom: Hi there Dave, thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. How much cruise ship traffic did you see in Astoria before COVID?

Isom: Yeah, here in Astoria, the cruise ship business has been a growing industry for us over the course of a number of years now. We were expecting 29 ships to come in this calendar year in 2021, and we actually have on the schedule for next year about 37 vessels, which would be a record for us. And so that business has definitely grown. I think we were averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 ships pre-pandemic, and we’re hoping as we move forward and resume traffic here in Astoria in 2022 that things will pick up again.

Miller: Is the basic idea that these big ships go up the coast on their way to Alaska, and that some of them stop in Astoria?

Isom: Correct. So there’s a number of different itineraries up and down the west coast that could stop in Astoria. A common one is for the departure to take place either in Seattle or Vancouver, Canada, actually come down here, stop in Astoria, and then head up north to Alaska. But there’s also cruises that originate down in southern California, even in Ensenada, Mexico.

Miller: The biggest cruise ships that were supposed to call on Astoria last year and this year have 2000 or even 3000 passengers. Meanwhile, Astoria as a city has something like 9000 people. So, proportionally, to the extent this analogy even makes sense, it would be like more than 200,000 people descending on Portland at one time. What is it like when the biggest ships arrive there?

Isom: It’s definitely a bit crazy at times. We’re fortunate, down here at the port, we have a group called the Clatsop Cruise Hosts. They’re a group of volunteers, a lot of them are retired. Total membership for that group I think has been, at times, as many as 150 people. And so when we have those large vessels in town, if it were up to just the port or the city to have to provide staffing, it would be nearly impossible. We just don’t have the population base and the number of workers here. And so those volunteers are what make that happen.

It starts from the time passengers depart the vessel. We have cruise hosts that are directing them to get on the proper cruise buses, if they’ve decided to take a tour. A lot of folks decide to just walk downtown. That’s one of the nice things about Astoria, is it’s a small town and, and passengers have the ability, if they don’t want to go on a guided tour, to just walk downtown. And so the cruise hosts help them with that. We have a cruise host station downtown, directing traffic, making sure people get safely on and off buses. So it’s definitely quite the undertaking. And then just from a size perspective, Astoria is a small coastal community. We don’t have a bunch of towering buildings downtown. And so when you have one of those 1000 ft cruise vessels here in town, you can see it from pretty much anywhere, and it kind of casts a shadow over the entire town.

Miller: It looks like a skyscraper has arrived on the water, essentially. Or at least a very wide building.

Isom: They’re pretty amazing, and they’re only getting bigger I think. This year, the largest scheduled vessel that was supposed to come in here was the Royal Princess. And it’s just under 1100 ft. But there’s vessels that are even getting larger than that now. And so that actually could be a challenge for us going forward, making sure that we have the infrastructure to support a vessel that large.

Miller: So some of those people may be going to other parts of Clatsop County, but as you’re saying, a lot of them just wander around downtown. I imagine some of them are going to the museum or going to get a cup of coffee or something. How big an economic impact does that particular cruise ship tourism have on the local economy?

Isom: So that’s a difficult number to get at. We obviously know the direct impact in terms of revenue that comes in from having that vessel docked here. And we have some information on some of the direct sales to passengers. When you get into some more of the indirect costs, how many times does that dollar that comes in turnover within town, is it, you know, five times, six times, seven times, it gets a little tougher.

But I think it’s safe to say there is a huge economic impact for our community. There’s a number of different tourist destinations that benefit. Oftentimes, these ships typically come in during the week. They’ll arrive in the morning, usually between 7 and 9AM. They’re just here for the day. And so for local businesses, that’s usually a slow time for them as they get busier on the weekends. It’s a good time to have people in town. And there’s a number of different tours that support those businesses. We have a Hollywood film sights tour that goes off. There’s also buses that go down to the Seaside/Cannon Beach area for a shopping tour, so we impact the south end of the county as well. And then some of those tours go as far as down to the Tillamook Creamery and even Mount Saint Helens.

Miller: Mount Saint Helens and then back to the boat by the late afternoon?

Isom: Yeah, it’s a quick trip. I think sometimes they’re waiting for that last bus to get in from Mount Saint Helens so that they can depart.

Miller: You said that it’s actually easier to have clear numbers for what this means for the port. So what do those dockings mean for the Port of Astoria in particular?

Isom: It’s a huge impact. There’s no question. We charge based on tariff rates which are based on the size of the vessel. And so between dockage and fees for one of the larger vessels, you could be looking at $25,000 to $30,000 in revenue to have that ship in for the day.

Now that being said, there are some significant costs, particularly with pier infrastructure, as well as dredging, that we have to do in order to have a facility that can host a vessel that large, and that’s actually been one of the challenges through the pandemic, is we’ve continued to do annual dredging to maintain depth so that we can get those vessels in. So then it becomes a bit of a fixed cost. And when those vessels end up not coming, you’ve spent the money and you don’t have corresponding revenue. And so that’s been a big hit to the port this last 18 months or so.

Miller: Still, in the back of the envelope math there, seems like around $1 million dollars that you’re not going to be getting this year.

Isom: Correct, correct. And for a small port like Astoria, that is not insignificant.

Miller: There are some international and interesting aspects to this. Can you explain how Canada’s prohibition on cruise ships stopping at their ports have affected US cities in Oregon and Washington and Alaska.

Isom: So the cruise business falls under the Passenger Vessel Services Act for transporting passengers. And basically what that means is foreign flagged ships, which basically cover all of the major cruise lines, cannot transport passengers from US port to US port without stopping in another country. They can’t just move passengers domestically here in the US. And so, typically what would happen is, on a west coast cruise, you might stop down south in Ensenada, or up in Vancouver, Canada to satisfy that requirement. I know earlier this summer there was a waiver that was passed for some states on a temporary basis so that they could resume some traffic, particularly up in Alaska. Oregon wasn’t included as a part of that waiver.

Miller: So if I understand correctly, this is a bill passed by Congress, signed into law by the President. If I understand it correctly, a ship now, at least temporarily, can go, say from Seattle up to Anchorage, bypassing any Canadian ports. But it couldn’t go from Astoria up to Alaska, bypassing those same ports?

Isom: Correct. Right now, that is the case. One of, one of the challenges with the cruise ship industry, when you talk about a pandemic is just a significant risk involved. And then additionally, when you’re talking about a cruise ship, you’re sort of interacting with all levels of government. Even if federally something gets approved, say for Seattle to have vessel service to and from Alaska, you also need to make sure that state and local restrictions aren’t such that it wouldn’t make that feasible.

That’s been one of the challenges for the industry as a whole as well, that, from state to state and from locality to locality, the numbers can look very different in terms of the pandemic. And it can change so quickly to where, this month, as a community, we may be okay with bringing that sort of a volume of people into town. But next month, if we have a huge outbreak, that may not be the case. And so that makes it tough from a planning perspective for the cruise lines. And then the cruise lines themselves have a huge incentive to operate as safe as possible, because the last thing they want is to have an outbreak on their ship. Not only to have to deal with the health crisis, but also the PR crisis that would soon follow.

Miller: So, you’re talking about a lot of competing priorities and the challenge of trying to take all those things into account. Based on people you’ve talked to, whether they’re in the hospitality industry or anybody else who’s living in the area, how do people feel about the idea of 3000 people getting off ships next week? This is not gonna happen, but how did they feel about that possibility, vs not having the tourist dollars in the community? What have you heard from people?

Isom: I think that question kind of goes to a broader issue of managing a health crisis, and along with that, that health crisis has brought along an economic crisis. Opinions can vary widely on how that should be handled. And of the challenges, especially with the current day political environment and things being really polarized, it’s really hard to have those discussions and have some nuance without emotions taking over. I think rational people can get together and talk about these things and understand that there’s a lot of factors at play here, and obviously that the health and safety of folks is number one.

But that being said, we all have to survive, we all have to eat. So a certain part of the economy has to continue. And so then the question is on that scale of how much should or shouldn’t we be doing? How much of normal day to day activities should be going on? And honestly, I don’t know if there is a real consensus in that regard. I know locally, and especially for coastal communities that rely on travel and rely on people frequenting restaurants and motels, there’s probably more of a sentiment that we should be allowing some of that stuff. But some of that is driven by people’s businesses, and people’s places of work being deeply impacted, and they’re trying to survive. And so I think we understand that there is no perfect answer to all this, and no matter what the powers that be are doing in terms of decision making, it’s always going to be easy to criticize, but it’s difficult to make those decisions because there is no perfect answer.

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