Cruise ships returning to Port of Camas-Washougal

Port enters into 1-year contract with American Cruise Lines following American Queen Voyages bankruptcy

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An American Cruise Lines vessel sails on the Columbia River in an undated photo. (Contributed photo courtesy of American Cruise Lines)

Two months after unexpectedly losing its docking agreement with American Queen Voyages, the Port of Camas-Washougal has partnered with another company to bring cruise ships back to east Clark County.

The Port has agreed to a one-year contract with American Cruise Lines (ACL), a Connecticut-based company that operates 19 small cruise ships along the United States’ Eastern and Western seaboards, as well as several major U.S. rivers, including the Columbia.

“With the bankruptcy taking place for American Queen Voyages, we were (contacted by) ACL to have a conversation,” Port Chief Executive Officer David Ripp said during a commission meeting on April 3. “They (wanted to explore) long-term (scenarios), but we felt more comfortable doing a one-year agreement as a start to see how this would work.”

ACL will relocate from Hayden Island to Camas/Washougal and use the Port as a “turn point,” according to Ripp.

“A turn point is where a vessel begins or ends its cruise,” he added.

ACL offers six- to nine-day cruise packages on the Columbia River, with stops between Astoria, Oregon, and Clarkston, Washington.

Five ACL vessels, ranging in size between 220 and 328 feet and holding between 125 and 200 passengers, will make 89 stops at the Port’s breakwater dock between March 31 and Nov. 8, according to the agreement.

“The vessels will technically be here 40 percent of the time, but it may seem as if (they’re here) daily,” Ripp said. “This is due to the fact there may be two to four days between a five- to seven-day period of the vessels being here. There are three days between March and November when two vessels will be here at the same time.”

New agreement will not include tourist visits to Washougal sites, downtown Camas

In February, American Queen Voyages announced it was suspending operations and canceling all future reservations. One of the company’s signature vessels, the American Empress, docked at Parker’s Landing Marina during its Columbia River cruises in 2022 and 2023, under the terms of a five-year agreement approved by Port of Camas-Washougal commissioners in March 2022. Port leaders said in 2022 that they hoped to bring the American Empress, a 360-foot paddle-wheeler that holds up to 223 guests, to the region in an effort to increase tourism.

The American Empress stopped at the Port’s breakwater dock twice a week from June through November in 2022 and 2023 as part of a weeklong Columbia River voyage that began in Vancouver and included stops in Astoria, Oregon; Stevenson, Washington; The Dalles, Oregon; Richland, Washington; and Clarkston, Washington.

After disembarking from the American Empress, tourists would walk to The Black Pearl event center’s parking lot, where they were able to board a “hop-on, hop-off” bus bound for Washougal’s Two Rivers Heritage Museum, Pendleton Woolen Mills and Cottonwood Beach before heading to downtown Camas’ shopping district.

And though the American Empress may return to the Columbia River — Cruise Industry News reported April 3, that ACL has purchased four ships formerly operated by American Queen Voyages — including the American Empress — the new cruise ship agreement between ACL and the Port of Camas-Washougal will not provide the tourists to downtown Washougal or downtown Camas.

“With the ACL agreement, passengers won’t) disembark and tour our community, so it doesn’t have that potential for local economic development,” Port Commissioner Cassi Marshall said during the Commission’s April 3 meeting. “(The financial impact of the American Empress visitors) didn’t pan out the way we thought it would, but at least there was that potential for that. This isn’t the same kind of agreement. … I like the one-year trial, a pretty low commitment, because I just want to make sure we pay attention to the potential impacts to our own tenants. I mean, it’s big, and (the boats) will be here a lot. So I would like to kind of know about the feedback from our own tenants.”

ACL will pay the Port $2.50 per foot, or approximately $65,000, as well as a $10,000 deposit.

Commissioner John Spencer praised the agreement’s financial terms — “a 4.6-fold increase in revenue is a good thing,” he said — and ACL’s commitment to sustainability.

Three of the five boats meet Environmental Protection Agency Tier-4 final emissions standards, according to Ripp, who said the vessels will not idle at the dock but will, instead, run on generators overnight.

“I do feel a lot better about these boats being tier-four, theoretically the cleanest that we can get right now without going electric. That’s a very good thing,” Spencer said. “I have some concerns about that much activity long-term. … But it’s only one year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Port Commissioner Larry Keister said that he believes the new agreement with ACL provides “a good opportunity” to promote the Port and Camas-Washougal community.

“We’ll see what the future brings,” Keister said. “I think it’s important that we keep our options open for the future and get some revenue coming in now, and then see what happens in the next three or five years. I know that, in the past, it was very popular for the sailing community to come up to the Parker House. With more than just the Parker House, I think we’re going to be a good tourist destination, which will help Hyas Point.”

Keister said he believes Port officials can “learn from last year’s experiences and fine-tune it.”

“(We will) see how this year goes, and then revisit the good points and make sure that we don’t make mistakes that we did last year, (when we experienced) things that we didn’t expect at all,” Keister said.