ASTORIA — Autumn delivers a cascade of cruise passengers to Astoria each year, boosting local businesses and introducing visitors to the “friendliest port on the West Coast.” Bruce Conner, cruise marketer for the Port of Astoria, considers cruise passengers ideal.
“They don’t come in cars and they come downtown and spend some money,” Conner said. “They’re the perfect tourist.”
Since the 1980s, cruise tourists have been coming to Astoria by the boatload.
“They started coming in 1982 because of Mount St. Helens,” Conner said. “Norwegian Cruise Lines was the very first ship. That was the beginning. We started with two, then went to four, then had six.”
This year is anticipated to set a new record regarding cruise passengers.
“This year we will have 22 ships and we anticipate moving 43,000 people across the dock,” Conner said. Barring cancellations, the anticipated passenger total will be a new record, eclipsing the previous mark set in 2017 by 5,000.
Average passenger spending in any U.S. port is $150 per couple, according to figures from the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), which averages spending across all U.S. ports. Approximately 20 percent of passengers stay on the ship, Conner said. It’s estimated that cruise passengers will account for more than $5 million in spending in 2018 in Astoria. Ship employees also provide spark in local sales each time a cruise ship is in port.
“The selling point of our state is no sales tax,” Conner said. “A lot will wait to spend money here to save money. I’m always surprised to see the 52-inch TVs they’re dragging out of Costco and bringing on the boat.”
As cruise ships continue to get bigger, discussions are centering on how the Port of Astoria can accommodate them.
“We’re just beginning to have those conversations because in two years they will begin moving the larger ships into the Alaska market,” Conner said.
Astoria serves as a “reposition port,” helping cruise lines transition from warm-water voyages in the Caribbean, Mexican Riviera and South Pacific to Seattle and Vancouver to begin their cold water cruises to Alaska in the summer.
Since 1995, Alaskan cruise passengers has increased from 470,000 to 1.2 million in 2018, according to CLIA figures. As Alaska continues to gain acclaim as a cruise destination, Astoria emerged as accommodating port.
“As they pass Astoria, we’ve convinced them to come by for the day,” Conner said. “It’s a cool destination and we provide what they need on shore.”
The first face cruise passengers see upon disembarking is typically one of 150 helpful volunteer cruise hosts. The hosts serve essentially as tour guides and ambassadors of Astoria, playing an important role in providing a positive first experience for cruise passengers. The hosts are spread along the port and scattered around town passing out maps, pointing directions and offering insights into all Astoria has to offer. Several buses circulate all day through town, then back to the port, a model that other cruise lines have emulated, according to Conner.
“We’re known as the friendliest port on the West Coast,” he said.
For many cruise passengers — particularly those coming from another state or country where marijuana is still illegal — getting to experience legal pot in an attraction and experience in itself.
“Yesterday our sales were double what they normally are,” said Five Zero Trees store manager Gabe Sutton, detailing the sales wake left by Explorer of the Seas, a cruise ship that arrived Saturday, Sept. 29, from Seattle with more than 3,000 passengers en route to San Francisco.
“It was group after group after group with 20 people on the floor all day,” Sutton said. “Our budtenders didn’t sit down.”
The dramatic increase in business has become expected and the pot store prepares accordingly for when cruise ships are in port, keeping a schedule of the ship arrivals and an extra stock of joints and edibles. In September alone, more than 10 cruise ships came to Astoria.
“September is the big month,” Sutton said. “We stock up, because if we turn around, half our edibles are sold.”
Not everyone is looking to get high while in port. Some are simply curious about an emerging industry.
“A lot of it is just education and we like to bring people through to give them a tour,” Sutton said. Most, however, are there to purchase and consume cannabis in some form.
“Edibles and joints, those are the main sellers because they can eat it or smoke it before then get on the boat and don’t have to deal with security,” Sutton said.
When a cruise ship pulls into port, a taste of the local cuisine is often the first thing passengers think about.
“Anytime you have a dramatic increase of people in town, you’re going to see an uptick in local retail business especially in the food industry because everyone needs to eat,” said Tokyo Teriyaki headwaiter Daniel Garner.
“We see a considerable uptick in business.” Most order the signature chicken teriyaki or the increasingly popular deep-fried Portland roll, things they aren’t likely to be served on the ship.
“I think that’s pretty common with most businesses, especially along Commercial Street,” Garner continued. “Any business is critical, especially one that’s small and family owned. All customers are important to us and more of them is never a bad thing.”
Explorer of the Seas’ Sept. 29 arrival, instantly added 30 percent to Astoria’s population and sparked an equivalent boost to sales for several businesses.
“Anytime there’s a cruise ship in town, you can tell it’s busier,” said Doe & Arrow owner Chelsea Johnsen. She estimated that cruise ships can boost daily sales an extra 30 percent for her 14th Street business. Most sales are for clothing and items made in the Pacific Northwest. Over the past two years’ cruise seasons, she has seen increased sales, particularly from cruise staff.
“Most of the impact comes from people who work on the cruise ships,” Johnsen said. “I’ll have someone come in then she will tell her friends and the next season more people will come in, it’s really rad.”
Other factors are also influence cruise sales.
“It depends a lot on the weather,” Johnsen said. “Going into winter, it’s important that there’s other stuff happening.”
Some come seeking sandals to replace the pair they forgot at home. Others want sneakers for a more comfortable walk back to the ship. Another may ask for something more formal to match the outfit they bought down the street.
“It can be anything,” said Gimre’s Shoes owner Pete Gimre. “It can be any shoe or item in the store.”
When one or more cruise ship is in town, the shoe store makes special arrangements to accommodate the crowds.
“We make sure we have all employees on board, because there will be an influx in the store that day,” Gimre said. “It takes more than the usual crew.”
The shoe store will typically get business from passengers and crew, but even if they don’t buy anything Gimre believes their presence is positive.
“The cruise ships definitely have a positive impact, not only on Gimre’s but on the downtown in general,” he said. “Whether they make it into our store or not, you always see people walking around. Whenever someone is getting business down the street, I see it as helping me in the long run. We get benefits from most cruise ships but even if they go someplace else, it’s like a snowball effect. It has impact on the entire area which I see as a benefit to everyone in the long run.”
The amount of business varies from ship to ship, Gimre said.
“Some cruise ships, we’ll get little to no business and others times it will be up to 30 percent of our business on a given day. It really depends on the cruise ship.”