PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A displaced cruise ship docked at the nation's rural northeastern tip is big enough to hold the host community's entire population.
The Oceania Riviera, which is temporarily residing in Eastport, population 1,300, provides an example of the lengths cruise companies are going through to find places for ships with nowhere to go during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s like musical chairs. When the music stops, where do you put them all?” said Chris Gardner, director of the Port of Eastport.
Cruise lines stopped sailing in mid-March after several outbreaks of COVID-19 in ships at sea. Thousands of cruise ship workers are still stuck at sea, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prohibited cruises in U.S. waters through July 24.
In Eastport, some residents feared the ship's crew might bring the new coronavirus to a county where only one resident has tested positive. In the end, the crew members will not be allowed off the ship, negating most of those concerns.
Many are embracing the massive ship in a community that was once known as the nation’s sardine capital.
There's no doubt that it's a big change of scenery since its arrival Sunday.
The ship, which towers 10 stories over the pier, is such a behemoth that it blocks views from part of downtown across Passamaquoddy Bay to Campobello Island, other islands, a lighthouse and the Bay of Fundy beyond.
“I just don’t think any of us realized how imposing that cruise ship was going to be," book store operator John Smith said Tuesday.
At nearly 800 feet, the Riviera is accompanied by a crew of 131 who will stay aboard the vessel to keep it in a “warm layup” state, Gardner said.
Eastport can host the ship because its maritime facility was rebuilt in 2017 after its Breakwater Pier collapsed. It touts itself as the deepest natural seaport in the continental United States, with twin piers that can accommodate ships up to 1,000 feet long.
Eastport is a relative bargain for Miami-based Oceania Cruises Inc., which is a subsidiary of Norwegian Cruise Line. The company is paying about $1,500 per day, or $50,000 per month.
The cruise company declined to comment.
“This is an opportunity to create some unique revenues at a time when revenues are hard to come by,” Gardner said.
It’s the largest vessel to tie up in Eastport, Gardner said. “We probably won’t see the likes of this in Eastport again,” he said.
There has been talk of other ships coming to New England, but Massport and the state of Maine have not signed on additional ships. One of the factors, Gardner said, is ensuring cruise ships are protected during hurricane season.
Around town, some people aren't thrilled by the ship's presence. Others see potential goodwill being generated by hosting the ship. Many local leaders hope it will lead to more cruise ship visits.
“From my point, it’s well worth the problem. I can see the long run of goodwill to the cruise industry” and producing revenue that will pay down debt from the 2017 overhaul of the port, Smith said.
Kevin Raye, president of the local chamber of commerce, called the ship “magnificent” and said it's generating a buzz. It already attracted so many visitors that one waterfront restaurant sold out of fish, he said.
“We're thrilled it's here," he said. “It's almost been like a lifeline to some of the small businesses that are struggling."