Vancouver’s hospitality industry could catch a friendly wave if waterfront planners accommodate the travel industry’s growing Columbia River vacation cruise business.
River cruise travel throughout the U.S. is growing at 3 to 5 percent a year with more vessels coming on line and more Americans, rattled by international turmoil, booking domestic river trips, local experts say.
Currently, a “high-dock” at the Red Lion at the Quay hosts weekly visits from the 223-passenger paddle-wheeler American Empress, which operates on the Columbia between Vancouver and Clarkston from May through mid-November. Its owner, Memphis, Tenn.-based American Queen Steamboat Co., expects to bring a 175-passenger ship to the river next year. International operator, Viking River Cruises, is rumored to be eyeing the Columbia for expansion in the next two years, as are others.
“Every time a ship docks at the Red Lion’s Terminal 1, travelers get off, walk around downtown Vancouver and spend money,” said Cynthia Anderson, owner of Vancouver-based USA River Cruises booking business. “There’s real potential. We could see 1,100 visitors here a week.”
Ship calls translate into booked pre-cruise hotel rooms and spending on on-shore meals as well as in downtown retail stores. Ship supplies purchased locally include regional wines, floral arrangements and on-board food, said Jacob Schmidt, spokesman for Visit Vancouver USA. The agency estimates that the American Empress is generating $480 per passenger per visit in economic impact. Ship calls over the past two years have contributed an estimated $1 million to the local economy, he said.
Both Anderson and Schmidt hope that a new master plan being developed by the Port of Vancouver for 13 waterfront acres at Terminal 1 where the American Empress docks will someday accommodate at least two cruise ships, simultaneously.
The port, which owns Terminal 1 and the Quay property, has hired NBBJ, a Seattle architectural and design firm, to lead the master planning process. The port hosted a preliminary “visioning” open house on May 26. A larger public outreach event is scheduled June 18 on the waterfront, said Katy Brooks, the port’s director of economic development.
“We realize what an asset river cruise operations are to the community,” Brooks said. “We want to capitalize on it. Preliminary concepts for the master plan include some kind of river cruise terminal.”
Brooks said the port has a meeting scheduled with American Queen Steamboat Co. officials to discuss future needs. But whether the Quay’s high-dock will be rebuilt to accommodate two vessels at a time is not yet determined.
“We don’t have a timeline for that but it will be discussed in the next two or three months as we develop the master plan,” she said.
Another challenge may come from the ports International Longshore Union, which wants to handle the dockings. That would add more expense for cruise operators. The master planning process is expected to be complete by year’s end.
In addition, the port is negotiating with Red Lion Hotels Corp., Spokane, to construct a new boutique-style 130-room hotel at the site. The old Quay restaurant and hotel structure might then be repurposed for use as part of a public market ala Pike Place Market in Seattle, Brooks said.
The port also wants to relocate its headquarters offices to Terminal 1 in what she described as a new “signature” structure at Terminal 1. In addition, there are plans for a commercial office building at the site.
“Our goal,” Brooks said, “is to do what the community expects on the waterfront,” Brooks said.
Meanwhile, river cruise operators see growing opportunity on the Columbia River. According to TravelAge West, an industry publication, Viking, which operates 60 river vessels worldwide, is expanding to 100 vessels by 2017. The company will be on the Mississippi River by 2017 and is considering the Columbia River, as well, the magazine reported. Some Viking vessels carry as many as 300 passengers. Connecticut-based American Cruise Lines will have two new ships on the water next year with one of them in the Pacific Northwest.
Cynthia Anderson sees Vancouver well positioned to win more cruise business because of its historic attractions including Fort Vancouver National Historic Site and also because of lower food and lodging costs.
“This year we have a total of five boats on the Columbia,” Anderson said. “Next year, we’ll see more.”