When the ship Norwegian Wind departed from the Port of Astoria Monday night, it sailed into the sunset of the region's cruise ship season.

It was the last of 14 ships that called on Astoria during a season that begin in late April. And by most accounts that season was especially successful and has put Astoria and the rest of the lower Columbia River region on the map of the cruise industry.

Earlier Monday, downtown Astoria was crowded with foot traffic after the Norwegian Wind docked at 2 p.m. Cruise ship passengers wandered along Commercial Street sticking their heads into shops and milling about taking in the scene.

Blue-vested, volunteer "cruise hosts" were sprinkled about the crowd of tourists asking them if they were having a good time or needed anything.

One group of half a dozen travelers from Leisure World retirement community near Laguna Woods, Calif., in Orange County were standing outside Steven's Fine Clothing at 12th Street and Commercial. They said they were impressed with Astoria even though they weren't sure at first why the stop was part of their cruise.

"I said 'Astoria? Why are we stopping there?'," said Joan Wurmlinger, describing how she reacted to her first impression of the cruise ship's itinerary.

Her friends said they too were unsure what to expect in Astoria, but were pleasantly surprised to find what they described as a lovely town, and said they felt welcomed by the "very friendly" locals.

Whib Sutherland said he was impressed by the effort going into the restoration of the Liberty Theater and some of his traveling companions said they enjoyed visiting a town that seemed to want to preserve its past.

Speaking of Astoria, Wurmlinger said she "would love to see it 25 years from now because it's the beginning of something really good."

The Norweigian Wind is on a repositioning cruise from Vancouver, British Columbia. It will stop in San Francisco before arriving in Los Angeles Friday, according to the Norwegian Cruise Line's Web site.

Eight more cruise ships bringing hundreds of such tourists are scheduled to dock at Astoria in 2004, the first being Royal Carribean Cruise Lines' Radiance of the Seas, set to arrive May 6.

Sundial Travel owner Bruce Conner, who has helped develop Astoria into a cruise stop, said it's "kind of like our small port has become a big-time player in the cruise industry."

He said this is not the first time the Norwegian Wind has called on Astoria. It was one of the first ships to visit the city eight years ago and has been returning ever since.

Getting some of the first ships to Astoria was the hard part, Conner said. Now that the port is a little better known more ships will become consistent visitors.

"Word is out and this industry is very tight," he said. "When someone is doing something the others want to get in on it," he said.

Not only has the city earned a reputation for being a hospitable port for deep water cruise ships, but Columbia River cruises are also capitalizing on stopping in Astoria.

Joel Perry, vice president for marketing of America West Steamboat company, said the cruise line will bring its newest sternwheeler riverboat, the 235-person Empress of the North to Astoria Thursday. It will then make the river run up into the Snake River through the spring. During the spring and summer, Perry said the boat will cruise from Seattle to Alaska.

He said while the Empress is on the Columbia it will complement the smaller Queen of the West riverboat also owned by America West Steamboat.

"Astoria has a unique charm that I don't think exists anywhere else on the river," Perry said.

He said the Empress will stay for two days in Astoria, allowing tourists to explore more of the region. That also gives the company greater ability to market the Lewis and Clark exploration, he said.

"Passengers can spend one day on the Oregon side and one on the Washington side," he said. "We're able to tell the full story without neglecting the Washington side."

Cruisers feel welcome

Part of what has made Astoria an attractive stop for the cruise lines, Conner said is the whole-hearted welcome passengers get when they come to town. He said volunteers have done a great job of making tourists feel welcomed when they arrive.

"That has really, really been proving to cruise lines we're interested in business," he said.

Astoria's marketing power also lies in the fact that the port joined a consortium of other ports along the West Coast in a marketing effort, said Bill Cook deputy director of the Port of Astoria.

By combining its efforts with the likes of San Diego and Seattle, he said Astoria has been able to set its place at the lucrative table of the cruise industry.

Through general obligation bonds passed in the mid '80s and '90s, Cook said the port was able to make the capital investment necessary to accommodate cruise ships. The second part, which is falling into place now, was securing a reputation as an attractive stop.

The next season, however, will not have the regular visits of the Holland America cruise ship Prinsendam. The vessel made several stops in Astoria as it went from San Francisco to Alaska. Cook said the ship had been pulled from its regular route in European waters because of terrorism concerns this year, but will be back in Europe next season.

Terrorism has also affected the port itself. Cook said the port district is seeking a grant of $572,000 from the federal government to upgrade its security.

He said $250,000 will be spent on a screening system to check baggage going onto ships. The port currently uses a mobile screening system operated by U.S. Customs which will be unavailable next year.

Other grant funds would go to pay for a new perimeter fence and barricades to block vehicular traffic.

Cook said the request was put at the top of the list for regional needs and has been forwarded to Washington, D.C. He said he expects a decision on the request could possibly come as early as the the second week of October.

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