Summer officially ended last week, but you wouldn't know it from the crowd of tourists in Astoria over the weekend and on Tuesday. The trolley was packed to the gills, pedestrians meandered along the downtown sidewalks and visitors took in the view from the Column - the fall cruise season was at its peak.
"It's another record year for arrivals, and I think the word is spreading to other cruise lines that this is truly a gem," said Bruce Conner, owner of Sundial Travel and member of the local cruise committee.
"Astoria's proven itself."
Tuesday, Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sun brought about 3,000 passengers and crew to the North Coast, and today the line's Norwegian Star brings a similar number of visitors here. After today, there will be three more ships this fall, with Royal Caribbean's Mercury visiting Oct. 9 and 16 and the Norwegian Spirit calling Oct. 26.
In all, the Port of Astoria is scheduled to welcome 15 cruise ships this season, more than any previous year. It's the result of a concerted effort to attract ships to the area, said port Deputy Director Bill Cook, who chairs the cruise committee.
"The reputation of Astoria as a port of call has gained significant recognition in the industry," Cook said.
And the idea is for Astoria to grow as a cruise destination, at least to a point, he said.
"Our goal has been to get 30 (ship visits) in a year, that's certainly a number we want to target," he said. However, he acknowledged that too many visits could stretch the volunteers too thin.
"So much of our success is dependent on the volunteer base that we have, and we are taxing that even at this level, at 15 a year, so some changes may need to be made," Cook said, citing transportation issues, parking and the cruise hosts.
"A cruise ship call isn't just as simple as a ship tying up to the pier. There's so much that goes on under the radar."
Decision-makersThere are two things that the port needs to keep doing to get the number of visits up to an optimal level, Cook said. The first is to work closely with the cruise lines, and the people who make decisions for the cruise lines.
"One of the most important factors in success in cruise lines is relationships," he said. "They have to trust that you can deliver the goods."
Cook goes to about three meetings a year to promote Astoria as a port of call, and stays in contact with cruise representatives throughout the year. In addition, the benefits of the region are extolled by other members of Cruise the West, an organization of 11 ports along the West Coast of the United States and Canada that work together to promote the ports.
For example, this week in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., representatives of Cruise the West are talking to executives of Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruise lines about possible four-, five-, seven- and nine-day ship itineraries that include Astoria.
Being on a regular route, instead of a one-time stop while a ship is in transit to or from Alaska, is one of the goals of Astoria's cruise committee, said Conner.
"We love the repositioning, but when you're on an itinerary, you see one every week during the summer," Conner said. Summer visits would also spread out Astoria's season, which is currently limited to the fall and spring.
Conner said Astoria could home-port a ship in the future, with passengers embarking from and returning to the North Coast, although air service would help get people here.
"It's a lofty goal, but we have what it takes," Conner said.
So far, about three or four ships have had passengers get on the cruise at the port, he said, and he is working with Holland America to book rooms from Astoria for a couple of spring cruises.
Quality countsBesides keeping up relationships with cruise representatives and advocating for new visits, expanding the industry locally involves keeping up the quality of the visits, Cook said.
"Nothing will kill you quicker" than letting the caliber of the visit slip, he said. Cruise lines take reports from both passengers and crew seriously, and will take disappointing ports off future itineraries.
But both Cook and Conner said that the input they receive about Astoria is very positive, especially when it comes to the friendliness of the people.
And Conner, whose company organizes the shore excursions for passengers, recently found out that one of his tours was nominated by Holland America to be a Medallion Shore Excursion - one of their top 50 worldwide tours. Conner's excursion takes passengers to the Oregon State University Seafood School, where Chef Eric Jenkins shows them how to prepare local fish, and then to the Cellar on 10th, where Mike Wallis introduces them to Oregon wines, including those complementary to seafood.
Cruise visitors on Commercial Street Tuesday had praise for the town as well.
"This is a great spot, I've never been in this part of the country," said Bill Wood of Ontario. He and his wife and friends were poking around Astoria Tuesday morning, taking advantage of weak U.S. exchange rate sand no sales tax to buy books and some antiques, and also enjoyed the view from the Column.
The local history and Lewis and Clark were attractions for Flo and Bob Gross of Santa Ana, Calif., who had been to Astoria before but were "looking up the stuff we missed the first time," Flo explained. They were planning to take the trolley but changed their mind after seeing how full it was, so instead went to the Column.
"What a beautiful view," she said.
The Column was a destination for Shirley and Gordon Hansen of Victoria, British Columbia, as were the downtown shops - although they didn't buy anything, since they were going to be cruising down through Panama to Houston, and didn't want to start collecting purchases yet, Gordon said.
Still, Shirley had praise for the logistics of the visit: "Your organization for getting people in and out of the ship is wonderful," she said, "There were no long waits; we like that part."