Cruises on the Columbia, Snake rivers grow increasingly popular

Tourism industry experts see potential for Vancouver, port, southwest washington

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor

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The Columbia River, the Northwest’s great resource for commerce, recreation, and energy, is emerging as a tourist destination for ship-bound travelers in pursuit of new sightseeing and historical experiences. That’s good news for Vancouver, which stands to gain visitors and business as a Portland metro-area gateway to the Columbia-Snake corridor.

The Vancouver-berthed American Empress, now in its second year of weeklong Columbia and Snake river cruises, has sold out most of its 223-passenger capacity for its runs from mid-July to mid-October. Because of that demand, the ship’s owners recently added two more cruises going into November.

John Waggoner, chairman and CEO of American Queen Steamboat Co., the Memphis, Tenn.-based operator of the American Empress, said passenger count is up by 30 percent from last year.

“Even for next year, six trips are already sold out,” he said.

Another Columbia River cruise boat, the 120-passenger Queen of the West paddleboat, which is berthed in Portland, also is enjoying strong sales. Ship owner American Cruise Lines of Guilford, Conn., plans to introduce a second boat, with room for 150 passengers, to the Columbia next year, said Charles Robertson, the company’s president. That boat will have larger staterooms than the 20-year-old Queen of the West, he said.

“We’re pleased with the operation overall, for sure,” Robertson said.

Passengers, largely from outside the Northwest, say they love the beauty and diversity of the Columbia, and the farms, forests and small communities on its shores.

“It’s fabulous,” he said. “Most people don’t know about it.”

Other cruise vessels ply some or all of the Columbia-Snake rivers route from the Pacific Ocean to the inland port of Lewiston, Idaho or Clarkston.

Un-Cruise Adventures of Seattle this year is offering 34 weeklong river cruises on its 88-passenger SS Legacy, based in Portland, from April to November. And Lindblad Expeditions offers National Geographic tours on its 62-passenger boat in the spring and fall months.

The healthy river tour traffic is quite a change from the down days of 2010 and 2011, when only a couple of small, seasonal operators worked the Columbia. The economic downturn of that era, combined with poor management decisions by some operators, wiped out what had been a healthy riverboat cruise industry just a few years earlier, said Cindy Anderson of Vancouver-based USA River Cruises, which she owns with her husband.

Much has happened since the mid-’90s to give reason for optimism for the growth and expansion of Columbia River cruises. While the modern river cruise industry is only two decades old and represents just a fraction of overall cruise offerings, it is the industry’s fastest-growing segment. The growth of international river cruises, especially in Europe, has whetted the appetite of travelers for new and unusual sightseeing journeys in the United States. And a new generation of river cruise ships, or flatboats, have added comfort and amenities that appeal to a clientele that is heavily skewed toward older, educated and affluent travelers.

Viking River Cruises, one of the industry’s biggest players, has announced plans to operate next year on the Mississippi River, leading to speculation that it will expand to other U.S. rivers, possibly including the Columbia.

Anderson said she’ll attend Viking’s public kickoff of its Mississippi River service this winter, and she’s hoping the company will look to the Columbia with boats that could carry hundreds of passengers.

Viking’s cruise service “would do amazing things for our economy,” she said.

Waggoner agrees, even though Viking would be a direct competitor.

“Viking would bring a lot of its European clients over,” he said. “I think it expands the market. Any time anybody (new) comes in, they are going to search out something unique.”

Vancouver is a hub

Vancouver is well-positioned to capture some of the dollars coming into Columbia River tourism. The city and Southwest Washington offer a rich development history, with Fort Vancouver as a key showcase. Cruise operators and promoters say that area farmers markets and the city’s walkable downtown are key attractions for visitors. Some visitors take side trips, offered as part of packaged tours, to nearby Mount St. Helens.

Some businesses enjoy a direct financial benefit. The American Empress departs from Vancouver once every two weeks during its season, leaving from Clarkston on the off weeks for a westbound tour. The Hilton Vancouver Washington rents 75 to 100 rooms to cruise passengers on the Empress’ departure weekends, said hotel general manager Eric Walters. Some visitors add an extra night to their stay.

“It’s been a great partnership, and we’re looking forward to that continuing for years to come,” Walters said.

In addition, the Empress serves local food and drinks on its cruise, and its staff makes many of those purchases locally, said Rosemary Cooke, director of business development at Visit Vancouver USA, a regional tourism office. Local companies appreciate the business, and the cruise ship operators know it, she said.

Rising river demand

The story of USA River Cruises, which operates out of The Academy near Fort Vancouver, suggests a strong growth potential for river cruises.

Cindy Anderson and her husband, Don, purchased the company in 1996 and moved it to Vancouver three years later. A decade ago, she said, the company generated about $600,000 in revenue. Since then, it has grown almost every year by about 23 percent, even during the economic downturn. With river cruises averaging about $3,500 per person, that’s no small feat.

“Even in the bad years, we did not have a bad year,” she said.

Anderson said she hopes the city and the Port of Vancouver are ready for the boom that she thinks is coming.

The American Empress currently docks at the port’s Terminal 1, at the foot of Columbia Street just beyond the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay. That dock can accommodate the 358-foot-long Empress but not much more, said Abbi Russell, the port’s spokeswoman.

Anderson said she would like the port to consider increasing the size of its dock and possibly adding a second dock as part of its planned reconstruction of the Terminal 1 site. Although she hasn’t participated in the port’s public review of redevelopment possibilities, she has spoken to Mayor Tim Leavitt and plans to talk to other city officials.

Russell said the improvements that will be developed at Terminal 1 will include a visitor center and restrooms that will benefit cruise visitors. The existing dock has capacity to serve more ships than the American Empress on different days of the week, she said, adding that she is not aware of any discussion about adding an additional dock.

Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s community and economic development director, said the city only recently learned of tourism industry interest in expanding docking facilities.

“This is clearly something we want to discuss further as the port’s master plan for this area is refined,” Eiken said by email.

But any discussion about adding larger boats can become complicated quickly. Waggoner of the American Queen Steamboat Co. said his company’s American Empress is pushing the size limit in more cities than just Vancouver. The size and logistics of docks in Stevenson and The Dalles, Ore., would be constraining for any boat that wanted to make a series of stops along the route, he said.

“For navigational reasons, the American Empress is about as large as you’d want,” he said.