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Cruise ships return to Astoria

Passengers on the Koningsdam head back to the cruise ship at a recent stop in Astoria. By Katie Frankowicz/KMUN

ASTORIA — For the last two years, the cruise ship industry, a major source of revenue for the Port of Astoria, has faced major disruptions.

But last week, on Friday, the first ship of the season docked at the end of Pier 1, the Koningsdam. Originally, the Koningsdam was supposed to be the second cruise ship to arrive at the port, but the Caribbean Princess, set to arrive earlier in the week, canceled its visit because of COVID cases aboard the ship.

According to Princess Cruises, the 1,600 guests and crew aboard the Caribbean Princess were all vaccinated. The cruise line did not disclose how many people were positive for the virus.

On the Koningsdam, vaccination was required for all but young children. Masks were optional, but encouraged and crew members wore masks while going about their duties. Otherwise, passengers who spoke with KMUN said things almost feel normal again.

Many were frequent travelers — on cruise ships in general and with the Holland America Line and on the Koningsdam in particular.

Barbara and Ray Capra from the San Francisco area said they had no reservations about returning.

“None, none,” said Ray Capra.

The couple has traveled on Holland America ships for around 20 cruises. They like the familiarity. Though each ship is a little different, many things are the same: The rooms, the entertainment, the food.

“But we’re actually very excited, though,” Barbara Capra said. “We didn’t know about Astoria. So we’re really excited to come here and see this cute town.”

Crew members refer to regulars like the Capras as “mariners.” In general, the mariners were among the first passengers to eagerly book trips as pandemic restrictions lifted.

Just before the COIVD-19 pandemic began several local businesses were not pleased about the presence of the cruise ships. Despite the messaging from the port of Astoria and the Astoria Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce — that cruise ships generate desired economic activity in the area — the business owners said cruise ship days were rarely that profitable for them and instead caused a lot of disruption and frustration.

At the start of the pandemic, initial plans by the port to continue to allow cruise ships to dock sparked anger and fear among some about the possible spread of COVID-19 in the community.

But there is no doubt cruise ships are an important business for the Port of Astoria.

Port Commissioner Robert Stevens took a tour of the Konginsdam on Friday and told KMUN the port is very happy to see cruise ships at the pier once again.

The lack of passenger-bearing ships in recent years was a hit to the port’s budget. The port can see over $1 million a year in revenue from cruise ship visits. Only two ships docked at the port last year. Both carried only crew members and were waiting out pandemic restrictions.

“As we swing back in, get more cruise ships coming in, yeah, it brings money to the Port of Astoria — and we need it,” Stevens said. “We’ll be able to look at spending now on some of the things that we need to address such as our infrastructure and so forth.”

For cruise ship crew members, it means getting back to work. Many had not worked since the early days of the pandemic.

And Ron Bontenbal, hotel general manager for the Koningsdam, says the experience with welcoming passengers on board again has been positive and “quite emotional in the beginning because all of our passengers are such they have 100, 200, 2000, 3000 days with us and they know a lot of us, they haven’t seen us for a long time.”

“So,” he added, “I found it more emotional than I thought it was going to be in the beginning.”

The Port of Astoria will see just over 20 cruise ships dock at the pier this season. This is down from nearly 42 that were scheduled earlier in the year, a record for the port. But the industry is still in flux as the coronavirus pandemic continues and port officials said the schedule is fluid.

The next ship is set to arrive Friday.