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Port could park cruise ships in limbo over virus

A potential source of new revenue

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With revenue decimated by a trade war with China and the coronavirus pandemic, the Port of Astoria could host cruise ships that need a place to park while global voyages are suspended.

“Cruise ships are in a scramble,” said Will Isom, the Port’s executive director. “They don’t have dockage for all their vessels.”

Cruise and log ships

The Port of Astoria could temporarily park one or two mostly empty cruise ships along Pier 1.

The Port is exploring the logistics of docking one or two cruise ships with skeleton crews along Pier 1, where dockage has been a major driver of the Port’s operational revenue.

Revenue has dwindled since a trade war between the U.S. and China stopped log exports from Pier 1 by Astoria Forest Products. The company has since been trying to escape from its leases with the Port.

The record cruise ship season expected to help offset those losses has so far been halted by the coronavirus. Major cruise lines announced a voluntary suspension of operations through early April amid the outbreak.

Astoria, Clatsop County and the Port jointly announced that no passenger-carrying cruise ships would be allowed to dock until after June 1.

Canada has disallowed all cruise ship tourism until July.

Most cruise ships are registered to foreign governments, so they need to stop in a foreign country before visiting multiple U.S. ports. Bruce Conner, the Port’s cruise ship marketer, cast doubt on any ships stopping in Astoria as long as Canada is off limits.

As of last weekend, there were around 40 cruise ships operating out of U.S. ports still at sea, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. About a quarter were expected to come into port by Monday, with the rest soon ending their voyages.

“Given that there isn’t enough space in some ports for all of the ships, we’re docking them at other ports during our voluntary pause in operations,” Carnival Cruise Line spokesman Vance Gulliksen told travel website The Points Guy. “We’re using a combination of ports in the U.S. and (The) Bahamas as well as anchoring some ships at sea.”

Some residents on the North Coast have called for the cruise ship season in Astoria to be canceled entirely as a precaution against the coronavirus. The prospect of cruise ships temporarily docking at the Port, even with skeleton crews, could be controversial.

“The health and welfare of the city is going to supersede any business opportunity,” Isom said.

The Port has reached out to the city, county, Columbia Memorial Hospital and Coast Guard on what it would take to make the business venture tenable.

Astoria Mayor Bruce Jones laid out his criteria for allowing the cruise ships to dock: no passengers, no coronavirus concerns and no crew allowed off the ship. Ships would have to agree to make their medical teams, kitchen staff and rooms available if asked by the county, he said.

“If all these conditions were met, then the Port, county and city would decide how to proceed,” Jones said.

Dirk Rohne, the president of the Port Commission, said that while the optics of a cruise ship in town might make people nervous, the risk would be low, and revenue is critical for the Port. The ships could also be an emergency asset with their medical teams and extra space, he said.

“We’re not going to do anything to compromise the public’s trust,” Rohne said. “Ultimately, working with the city and county, public health is the first and foremost concern.”

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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