The 17th Street pier will be bustling starting this spring, as river tour boats are planning to make 266 visits to Astoria in the 2005 season, three-quarters more than the number of visits in 2004.
"Speaking for everyone in this community, 'Thank you, thank you and keep coming,'" Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen told tour boat operators at the 11th annual tour boat planning session Thursday.
Last season, 20,000 visitors came to Astoria via the river, Van Dusen said. This year, the 10 different river boats could bring almost 25,000 people.
Weekends will be especially busy, as the Queen of the West docks on Fridays, the Empress of the North docks on Saturdays, and the Columbia Queen returns to the pier on Sundays.
The Columbia Queen made regular calls in Astoria for two seasons, but stopped in October 2001 after its operating company shut down and the tourism industry stagnated after Sept. 11.
But Great American River Journeys bought the Columbia Queen in August, and is fixing it up for an April 8 arrival in Astoria. Crews are adding private verandahs to 22 staterooms, putting in new floors in some areas and updating wall treatments, said company President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Lomax, who called the riverboat one of the most stately in the country.
The ship will stick to an itinerary similar to when it was in operation before, stopping in town from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Lomax said he expects the ship to bring in 4,300 visitors in its 32 Astoria visits this year.
The response to the return of the ship has been "phenomenal," Lomax said. "The return of the Columbia Queen is definitely not a start-up for our company, it's a restart of a highly successful cruise operation."
A sister company to Great American River Journeys, Glacier Bay Cruise Line, will be bringing adventurers to town on the Wilderness Discoverer, which will start making stops in Astoria this spring.
"We do more high adventure, kayaking. It's more of an expedition than a tour," explained Jill Russell, director of marine operations with Glacier Bay. The 170-foot boat will bring 80 passengers, 25 crew, and kayaks to town in the spring and the fall as part of a seven-day trip out of Portland.
Most of the increase in tour boat visits this year will come from the Outrageous, a jet boat service from Portland that made its debut in Astoria last summer. It's expanding its service to five days a week, Thursdays through Mondays.
"We'll be starting to promote Astoria quite a bit more than we have in the past," said Dan Yates, president of Portland Spirit, which operates the Outrageous as well as dinner cruises out of Portland.
The Outrageous is a "way to see if there really is a market to run high-speed vehicles between Portland and Astoria," Yates said. If there is a market, he said he would like to buy a bigger, faster boat that would make multiple trips a day between the two cities. In 2004, the Outrageous ferried 1,800 people; Yates hopes to triple that next year.
The Sea Lion and Sea Bird will also be making stops in Astoria, as they have for the last 15 years. They have a new agreement with National Geographic now, which will be featured in their marketing materials.
"From a marketing standpoint we're thrilled with the alliance," said Jeff Boyer of Lindblad Expeditions. The Sea Lion will only make one stop in the spring before summering in Alaska, but both boats will make stops here in the fall.
The Empress of the North and the Queen of the West will be returning to Astoria as well.
The returning boats will find some improvements at the 17th Street Pier. Western Oregon Waste and the city are putting in a compactor that can hold four times more trash than the current bins, and will also set up larger, out-of-sight recycling containers.
The dock also now has Wi-Fi access, so people with a wireless Internet card in their computer can check their e-mail or browse the Internet, said Columbia River Maritime Museum director Jerry Ostermiller.
"There's a pretty good signal anywhere you would be tying up," he said, adding that passengers can also get Wi-Fi access at the Astoria Public Library.
On the east side of the maritime museum, a half-million dollars worth of improvements will create a plaza, parking and staging for tour buses, and public restrooms.
Thursday's meeting was also a chance for the river tour boat operators to hear an update on Astoria. The news from Jill Harding of Fort Clatsop National Memorial that the park had dropped the reservation system drew applause. The audience also learned of different downtown developments, including public restrooms between 12th and 13th streets on Exchange Street; the Lewis and Clark Explorer Train, which project coordinator Susan Trabucco said was probably in its final season; the Riverfront Trolley, which Don Morden reported carried 41,000 people last year; and other projects.
Tour boat operators said they appreciated the efforts Astoria puts forward in welcoming visitors.
"The support we get in the community has made Astoria one of our must-see stops," Boyer said.