Port lands Portland Spirit river cruise

Sightseeing firm to launch ‘Seven Wonders of the Gorge’ tour from Washougal

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The Portland Spirit cruise and events company's Crystal Dolphin yacht will provide tours from the Port of Camas-Washougal's breakwater dock to Beacon Rock and back in July and August. (Contributed photo courtesy of Portland Spirit)

The Port of Camas-Washougal has landed a major tourist draw to its Washougal waterfront.

This summer, the Port’s breakwater dock, located near Parker’s Landing Historical Park, will serve as a launching pad for the Crystal Dolphin, an 84-foot, 140-passenger yacht operated by the Portland Spirit.

The Portland-based company, best known for its dining and sightseeing river cruises in the Columbia River Gorge and in downtown Portland, plans to offer three-hour, roundtrip tours from Washougal to Beacon Rock on the Crystal Dolphin twice a day, seven days a week, starting July 5, 2020, and running through Aug. 31, 2020.

Each “Seven Wonders of the Gorge” tour will cost $50 per person.

“We wanted to have a location on the lower Columbia River at the start of the (Columbia River Gorge) National Scenic Area,” said Portland Spirit President Dan Yates.

“We operate a sternwheeler in Cascade Locks, and we have four boats in Portland, so we have a presence on the Columbia (River), but the Vancouver waterfront is quite a ways from the actual National Scenic Area,” Yates said. “Our cruise to Multnomah Falls is popular, but it’s only once a week, and this would be a much shorter version of that without going through Bonneville.”

David Ripp, the Port’s executive director, said he is excited about the new relationship with Portland Spirit.

“It’s going to be a good revenue source for the Port, and it’s going to bring people down to see what we have here, especially with the future development of our waterfront,” Ripp said. “I see it … helping us draw people down to the waterfront to see what’s actually here.”

Under an agreement signed by Port leaders earlier this month, Portland Spirit will pay the Port $1 per foot of vessel length per day for the docking period; reimburse the Port for water and electrical usage; provide for its refuse removal; and purchase fuel from the Port.

Kim Noah, the Port’s director of operations, told the Post-Record in October that the agreement aligns with the agency’s goal of expanding opportunities at the boat basin.

“The tourism aspect is kind of what 2020 is all about for the marina,” she said. “We’re trying to bring in tourism through the breakwater, through the access ramp, via recreational boaters wanting to come here more, getting this breakwater accessible for everybody on an easier basis, and also (bringing in) commercial boats and having them use it.”

With the agreement with the Port in place, Portland Spirit is moving forward with its marketing plans for the new tour, which will present the company with some significant challenges.

“We view this a three-year project to see if we can get people to go there. Camas and Washougal are not exactly tourist hotbeds,” Yates said. “We’re going to have to teach people that Camas and Washougal exist. That can be expensive, and may be something we can’t overcome. That area doesn’t have any sort of presence in the market at all, so it’s like starting from scratch. Washington doesn’t have a state tourism agency anymore, so it’s going to be up to us and the Port to help get it off the ground.”

In fact, Yates doesn’t expect the tour to make a profit in 2020.

“Hopefully we can make this a stand-alone profitable location. That’s the goal,” he said. “That won’t happen next year. No way that will happen next year. I won’t be surprised if during the first couple of weeks we have five people per cruise. But that’s the cost of creating a new market.”

If the tour can prove sustainable, however, Yates would like to expand and offer the “Seven Wonders of the Gorge” tour for up to five months out of the year.

“Working with the Port was one was one of the more enjoyable interfaces I’ve had with government agencies,” Yates said. “Usually agencies come up with a long list of ‘No’s’ and avoid saying, ‘Yes,’ but the Port was much more understanding about what was needed and how to make things happen and problem-solve. The Port appreciates that this is an experiment. Neither side is risking a great deal. There’s lots of moving parts to a project like this.”

One of those moving parts is the start date. Even though operations could begin July 4 according to the contract terms, Yates said tours won’t be offered on that day in deference to the Port’s Independence Day festivities.

“They want to be good neighbors. They want this to be successful, so they’re going to very workable (with) what goes on when they’re moored here. They’re a great group to deal with,” Ripp said.