American Queen Voyages halts operations; Port seeks new river tourism options

Closure halts American Empress river cruises to Camas-Washougal

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The American Empress riverboat, the largest riverboat operating west of the Mississippi River, docks at Parker’s Landing Marina in Washougal for the first time on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record files)

The Port of Camas-Washougal is assessing new options to provide river-based tourism opportunities after losing the services of the two cruise vessels that made regular stops at Parker’s Landing Marina during the summers of 2022 and 2023.

American Queen Voyages (AQV), a Florida-based luxury cruise company, announced Wednesday, Feb. 21, its decision to suspend operations and cancel all future reservations. One of AQV’s signature vessels, the American Empress, docked at Parker’s Landing Marina during its Columbia River cruises in 2022 and 2023.

“It’s always been great working with them,” said Derek Jaeger, the Port’s business development director of AQV. “They’ve been great partners with us. It’s unfortunate (to hear about) what they’re dealing with right now.”

Jaeger said that he was “surprised” when he heard about AQV shutting down.

“We found out through the news just like everybody else,” he said. “We haven’t received any formal notification from AQV. We reached out to their contacts, but the information that we have so far has been provided either through the AQV website or the media. We’re still trying to gain a better understanding.”

AQV stated that “effective immediately, all future cruises have been canceled,” and that “guests should expect to have their cruise deposits refunded in full.”

“The overnight cruise industry was especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and related changes in travel preferences,” AQV stated on its website. “Despite great efforts by our team, crew and partners, demand has not recovered and AQV has become financially unsustainable.”

Adam Peakes, president of the cruise line’s corporate owner, Hornblower Group, said it plans to sell the company, “or, if a sale cannot be achieved, its operations will be wound down.”

“Please know this decision was not made lightly,” Peakes said in an emailed statement shared with USA TODAY. “We are deeply proud of our employees and crew for the outstanding services they have provided our guests over the years. As the backbone of the AQV experience we extend our deepest appreciation to our team for their unwavering commitment, passion and hard work, which has been exceptional. We would also like to express our heartfelt gratitude to our guests, partners, agents and the local communities where we call who have each been integral to our journey.”

Port commissioners approved a five-year moorage agreement with AQV in March 2022, bringing the American Empress, a 360-foot paddle-wheeler that holds up to 223 guests, to the region in an effort to increase tourism.

AQV 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 walked to The Black Pearl event center’s parking lot, where they boarded 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.

“We’ll see some economic impact for the communities, but probably not as greatly as one might think, and that’s just due primarily to the nature of the type of stop,” Jaeger said. “At our stop, passengers would come off and do their tours, and they may have spent some money, but not as much as they spend at at a ‘turn point,’ where you have passengers starting or ending their visit. Passengers may come a day earlier, stay the night at a hotel, spend money on lodging, spend money on food, shop a little bit more than a ‘quick stop,’ where they’re visiting but have some amenities on their vessel that they can utilize. It’s just a different dynamic.”

Two Rivers Heritage Museum “will miss the opportunities for volunteers and the funds the cruise line paid us for admissions,” said Camas-Washougal Historical Society President Dick Lindstrom.

“The money we earned helps with operational expenses since we have never gotten traction back in attracting visitors after the COVID closure,” Lindstrom said. “We hope that local travelers and the community will start to rediscover us. There are still boats touring the river, (however, and) we hope another will find us and make us a stop for their passengers to enjoy.”

AQV stopped at Parker’s Marina Landing 27 times in 2022, but only nine times in 2023, according to Jaeger.

“We reached out to them, and they cited just a number of things — scheduling, trying to figure out timing with the locks, and passenger desire to see more of the Gorge and make fewer stops here so that they’d have a longer eastbound trip to enjoy the views and that kind of thing,” he said. “They sent us a preliminary docking schedule for 2024, and they were back up right around 20 stops going into the future. It looked like, from what I understood, that they made some adjustments of schedules … and were going to get back on track.”

Jaeger said the Port collected about $13,000 from the AQV agreement in the past two years.

“In terms of Port operations, ($13,000) doesn’t impact that much,” he said. “Our heart goes out to the AQV employees that we were working with that may potentially be laid off. That’s where the bigger impact, I think, is felt. But operationally, it’s not a significant impact to us.”

The Port also recently lost the services of its other cruise boat. UnCruise Adventures, a Juneau, Alaska-based travel company, decided to not renew its lease with the Port for 2024, according to Jaeger.

Port commissioners approved an agreement in April 2023 that allowed the Wilderness Legacy, a 192-foot-long replica turn-of-the-century coastal steamer that can hold up to 88 passengers, to dock at Parker’s Landing Marina every Saturday in September and October and the first Saturday in November.

Camas-Washougal replaced Portland as the first and last stop on UnCruise Adventures’ seven-day “Rivers of Adventure and Wine” tour, which also includes stops at Astoria, Oregon; Cascade Locks, Oregon; Walla Walla, Washington; Palouse Falls, Washington; and The Dalles, Oregon.

“That one was a little bit different (than the AQV contract),” Jaeger said. “We did a one-year docking agreement with a one-year option so they could kind of test out the market. They were realigning their stops; they had one that was previously in Portland that they pulled and wanted to put in here just to kind of try it out. I know they do cruises in Alaska and elsewhere as well, so they probably evaluated that whole dynamic of how that works. I don’t have a full understanding of their particular market.”

Jaeger said the Wilderness Legacy made five stops at Parker’s Landing Marina in 2023.

“That (loss) won’t have a big impact on the Port at all,” he said.

The Port is talking with another cruise company about docking at Parker’s Landing Marina, and Jaeger said the Port remains committed to providing river-based tourism opportunities.

“We’re positive about the potential of (a) partnership later this year,” he said.

Jaeger added that the Port likely will not host any river cruises this summer even with a new partnership.

“It takes time for them to do their bookings and get everything in line and that kind of stuff. It would be more of a ‘figure-it-out-this-year’ type of thing,” he said, with cruises likely arrive “next year at the earliest.”

He added that the Camas-Washougal area “has a lot of potential.”

“The AQV passengers were thrilled with our local community and how friendly everybody was, and the beautiful small towns that we have, as well as the scenic Columbia Gorge that is basically our showcase for what they come to see,” he said.