U.S. Coast Guard secrecy complicates accomodation for tour boats visiting AstoriaGetting ready for the next season, representatives from Columbia River ports and tour ship companies huddled in Astoria Thursday.

Tour ships run the Columbia River usually in the spring and fall "shoulder" seasons between cruises in Alaska during the summer and warmer locales in the winter.

Mitch Mitchum, Astoria's public works director, has led efforts to attract tour boats to Astoria. He said the past season was "very good," despite the number of visitors being down a little from other years. But he said that is to be expected as the travel industry slowly recovers from the slump in the national economy.

He said 105 "visitor days" from tour ships have been scheduled for Astoria and that translates into about 14,000 people coming through town.

"The way things are shaping up, we'll probably see that go up some," he said.

Tour ships are much smaller than their ocean-going counterparts that have been docking at the Port of Astoria recently. Passenger counts are usually in the hundreds rather than thousands, and the ships travel the Columbia River from Astoria into the Snake River that passes through southeastern Washington before reaching Lewiston, Idaho.

The meeting gave representatives from local attractions a chance to plug Astoria's features, while also allowing ports to promote themselves as a stop on tour ship itineraries.

Two sternwheelers, the Queen of the West and Empress of the North, will be making stops in Astoria - combining to bring more than 10,000 visitors. The Queen will visit Astoria throughout the year, while the Empress will make stops only in September, October and November.

Other ships include the Sea Bird and Sea Lion which will visit Astoria September to November bringing about 1,500 people to visit.

Mitchum said Astoria will be raising the docking fee at the city's 17th Street pier to raise money to dredge around the pier, which is usually used by tour boats when they come to Astoria.

The fee will go from $1.10 per vessel foot to $1.16, roughly a 5 percent increase that Mitchum said would go solely to dredging.

"I guess that's the not-so-happy news to take back to the home office," he said to the group.

Security is also an issue the city will have to contend with, he said. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mitchum said every port has been required to draft a security plan. In the next months, Mitchum said Astoria will be working on its 17th Street dock and some changes may be ahead. But, he said, Astoria should be able to maintain some public access.

Mitchum said the city already feels the affects of heightened security because U.S. Coast Guard leaders have become much more tight-lipped about when its cutters will be deployed. He said that can create a situation in which Astoria is looking for a place to dock a tour boat because most of the available moorage has been taken up by the Coast Guard. The port can handle that overflow, he said.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Will Noftsker attended the meeting and gave a brief overview of the resources the service can provide to a ship in distress, such as Air Station Astoria's HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter. It has a range of 300 nautical miles and can hoist 600 pounds.

But as the contingency planner for the air station, Noftsker said he didn't have many details on security requirements.

When asked about why Coast Guard helicopters can be seen flying upriver inland, Noftsker said he didn't really know. "We don't ask those questions because we don't get very good answers," he said.

But he also said the guard's responsibilities stretch inland as far as the Columbia River is navigable and it is charged with protecting sensitive infrastructure such as bridges during periods of heightened security.

Rick Davis, manager for the Port of Clarkston, Wash., on the Snake River near the border between Idaho and Washington, said he's enjoyed making the trip down to Astoria each year for the meeting. "We really pick up on a lot of things down here," he said.

The impending Lewis and Clark Bicentennial is a major opportunity for smaller ports to reap a windfall from passing tour ships.

"This Lewis and Clark thing, that's a big deal for everybody," he said.

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