The Seven Seas Mariner sailed into Ventura County on Saturday to what tourist officials hope will become a regular port of call for cruise ships making their way up and down the West Coast.
To help ensure that, Ventura tourism officials rolled out the red carpet for 235 people aboard the Radisson Seven Seas cruise liner that set sail from Los Angeles on Friday, bound for Alaska. The Mariner pulled into the Port of Hueneme on Saturday morning for a half-day visit.
Special events organized by the Ventura Harbor District and the Ventura Convention and Visitors Bureau included shuttling passengers to some of the county’s top tourist attractions, including the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, downtown Ventura and Harbor Village.
Cruise line officials did not know how many people left the ship Saturday, said Mariner tour operator Roger Condon.
The point was to impress passengers enough that they would want to return and patronize the county’s hotels, restaurants and shops, said Leticia Wilson, marketing director for Ventura Harbor Village.
Wilson, who has been a leader in the effort, said it’s time for Ventura County tourism officials to capitalize on an opportunity floating right past them. The cruise ship industry estimates that an eight-hour stop in port with 2,000 to 3,000 passengers can bring tens of thousand of dollars to a city.
“Everybody wants to get in on the action,” Wilson said.
“I would think that anybody that has a tourist attraction is interested in passengers on the cruise ship, because these people can be very productive,” she said.
Plans to offer Santa Barbara visits during the stopover were scrapped because of traffic concerns over the Memorial Day weekend, Condon said.
Passengers Pree Brown and Peck King, of Scottsdale, Ariz., who visited the Reagan library, said they were impressed with the first stop on their eight-day voyage.
“Absolutely, I would come back,” King said. “It was excellent.”
Lauren Jenkins of Washington, D.C., said she enjoyed the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center at Ventura Harbor and its exhibit on tide pools.
“It was really interesting to learn about the sea life,” Jenkins said. “And it was nice to walk around.”
Her friend, Braxton Newton of Jacksonville, Fla., bought a couple of Mexican games that involved tossing a ball between two cups connected by a string. They played with the new toys in a grassy area by the shore, he said.
“We went down to the beach,” Newton said. “It was fun.”
The average passenger on a Radisson Seven Seas cruise earns $200,000 a year or more, said Andrew Poulton, director of strategic marketing for the Florida-based Seven Seas.
Another of the company’s liners is scheduled to stop in Port Hueneme in the fall, he said.
Seven Seas also brought ships into Port Hueneme once each in 2001 and 2002, but no formal activities were scheduled in Ventura County.
No other cruise ship companies have placed Port Hueneme on their itineraries, but Wilson said the area received a lot of interest earlier this year at one of the industry’s largest trade shows, which she attended for the first time.
Port officials recently joined a coalition of 10 West Coast ports from San Diego to Seattle, working to attract cruise business, which has traditionally been stronger on the East Coast.
The timing is right to position the West Coast as the industry’s next breakout star, in light of world events -- such as the war on terrorism and SARS -- that are causing many travelers stay closer to home, Wilson said.
On Saturday, the Mariner boarded 181 more passengers in Port Hueneme, many of them vacationers from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties who might not have taken the cruise if they had to travel to San Pedro to board, Poulton said.
During last year’s stopover, 100 passengers boarded, he said.
Port of Hueneme marketing director Will Berg, who worked in the cruise ship industry for 15 years, called Ventura County a “jewel in the rough” that could become a regular stopover on the cruise circuit if some negatives are overcome.
One is that Hueneme is primarily a commercial port, more equipped to handle banana boats than luxury ocean liners.
A stop next month by a floating luxury condominium complex was scrapped because the port can accommodate cruise liners only on weekends, Berg said.
Weekdays are occupied by cargo ships, bringing in about $30,000 in fees to the Oxnard Port District, which runs the Port of Hueneme, compared with about $2,000 for cruise ships.
In an effort to make the docking area more appealing, Seven Seas set up tents for passengers as they got on and off the ship to live mariachi music.
The port also lacks a countywide tour operator to organize local activities for interested passengers, Berg said. That is where the convention and visitors bureau and Ventura Harbor stepped in Saturday.
On tap was a tour dubbed “Ventura’s Hidden Treasures and Haunted Hideaways” led by local historian Richard Senate, as well as the trip to the Reagan library near Simi Valley.
Opportunities will arise in the future for Channel Islands Harbor and other tourist attractions to capitalize on the cruise ship market, Berg said.
“Cruise ship companies are notorious copycats,” Berg said. “Once one is doing it, they’re all going to end up coming. They know the potential is here.”
Berg said he envisions the day when cruise ship passengers will spend an afternoon roaming Gardens of the World and the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks or galleries and shops in Ojai.
Tourism officials hope cruise ships will one day be able to anchor off the coast of Ventura or Oxnard, but details have to be worked out with the U.S. Customs Service in Los Angeles. For the foreseeable future, cruise ships will use the services of the U.S. Customs office at the Port of Hueneme, Berg said.
Wilson said she is sure Ventura will stand out in the minds of passengers on the cruise, even against such formidable competition as San Francisco; Vancouver and Prince Rupert in British Columbia, Canada; and Misty Fjords National Monument, Ketchikan and the Inside Passage in Alaska.
“We think Ventura has a lot to offer,” Wilson said.
“When they see how beautiful it is, they’ll come back.”