The 1000 Islands International Council - the tourist promotion board for the counties along the St. Lawrence region in both upstate New York and Eastern Canada - is stepping up efforts to bring cruise lines into the area.

Currently, there are several operators on both sides of the river offering day excursions, and Bermuda Star Line's Veracruz sails along the Seaway, but does not stop in any ports there. However, only American Canadian Line and Rideau St. Lawrence Cruise Ships offer longer, overnight cruises, it is in this market that the Council believes there is great potential for expansion.

"The St. Lawrence Seaway is a natural destination for cruising," said Victoria Stevens, director of tourism. "It is one of the most scenic regions, and it is rich in history. It also offers some of the world's best fishing, unlimited boating activities, and plenty of opportunities for golf, tennis and other summer sports."

Port Facilities Available

According to several harbor masters and coast guard spokespeople in the region, there are many ports along the St. Lawrence River that can handle cruise vessels, and there are a variety of itineraries available to cruise operators.

Most of those interviewed said that the most practical home port cities for such cruises would be Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City, all of which have the facilities and infrastructures to accommodate cruise passengers. They noted that these cities are also major tourist attractions.

Between these cities, cruise ships would be able to sail along the St. Lawrence Seaway offering a scenic passage and calls at several less discovered historic sites and recreational resorts, they said. Alexandria Bay, Kingston, Clayton, Cape Vincent, and Cornwall were among the ports mentioned. Messena - home of the Seaway Locks system also was mentioned several times.

In many of these cities, there already are docking facilities to handle cruise ships.

"I see a lot of potential for growth in the cruise industry up and down the river," said John Adams, executive assistant for St. Lawrence Seaway Development. "The locks are a great tourist attraction, and we get a lot of calls from people who are interested in transiting them," he added.

According to Adams, Messena has "plenty of deep water" to handle cruise ships, and access to major highways.

The charge for cruise vessels transiting the locks would be $.08 per ton, and $1.00 per passenger, per lock, he noted.

Other facilities that can easily be converted for cruise ship use are available in Alexandria Bay - major resort area, and Clayton, according to Captain Hazelott Coast Guard at Alexandria Bay. He noted that in some cases, there is berthing capacity for ships with up to 50-feet drafts, and that the large number of coast guard crafts present along the Seaway contribute to lower insurance costs for passenger ship operators.

Kingston as a Home Port

Many of those interviewed also said that Kingston is well-equipped to serve as a home port.

"This is a high tourist area and there is a lot of room for expansion in the longer cruise market," said W. Parson, area manager of harbors and ports.

"There is berthing capacity right in front of City Hall for vessels with drafts up to 17 feet, and unlimited draft at the old Drydock area Just 10 blocks from City Hall. There is also berthing space at La Salle Causeway, which is also highly accessible to the downtown area," he said.

According to Parson, there is "plenty" of public transportation available for shore excursions, and "it is no problem getting buses and vans to any of the docking areas." The Kingston Airport is about two or three miles out of town, and there is good rail transportation into the area, he reported.

Canadian Empress Carved Niche in Region

The Canadian Empress, a 66-passenger, 108- foot replica steamship, offers three- and five- night cruises along the St. Lawrence from Kingston. It is owned and operated by St. Rideau Cruise Ships which was started by Bob Clark in 1981. Built in Ganonoque for about $2 million, the Canadian Empress features 32 staterooms on two levels a dining room, bar, sun deck and observation deck.' A 14-member crew services the passengers.

According to Jim Clark, the line's vice president, "calm-water cruising" is the theme of the Canadian Empress. The company emphasizes itineraries that are "embedded in history and natural beauty, and an intimate, comfortable cruise experience," he said. Middle to upper income travelers in the 55 plus age group are the prim targets. Sixty percent of the passengers come from the United States and 40 percent come from Canada.

Sailing from Kingston, the Canadian Empress offers a variety of itineraries to Montreal or Quebec City, May through October, priced at about $140 per day, without air.

Now entering its fifth full season, the Canadian Empress has become a success," Clark said. "Our occupancy has reached into the low 80s," he added, noting that the line needs to sail at about 75 percent to break even. "However, it took about three years for us to position ourselves."

Resistance on the part of the travel trade was the major problem, according to Clark. "We were promoting a new idea, and many agents were reluctant to take the chance," he said.

As a result, the line marketed its cruises directly to the consumer. It relied heavily on newspaper advertising in the northeastern U.S. and Ontario; and in consumer magazines aimed at the "mature" market such as Fifty Plus, Sunset, and Time.

In the United States, Ohio and Michigan have alternated as the line's biggest markets, and California has ranked second. In Canada, Ontario is the major market.

The line has developed a good repeat business, with some passengers returning as many as 14 times, Clark said. Tour operators account for about 30 percent of the bookings, he added.

The line is stepping up efforts to move into new areas, increasing newspaper advertising and attending more trade shows.

"Texas is developing nicely for us, and Florida should be another good market," Clark said. There are plans for a second ship on the drawing board, but for now, they will remain just a concept, according to Clark. "The numbers for a second ship just are not there yet," he said.

"There still are not enough people who know about this area."

American Canadian Line

American Canadian Line also offers cruises in the St. Lawrence region, from Warren, encompasses the Hudson River, Erie Canal, 1000 Islands, St. Rhode Island. The 12-day itinerary Lawrence Seaway, Montreal, Quebec, and next area - The Saguenay River.

According to Luther Blount, passengers love to go through the 1000 Islands and spend some time there. However, to be successful, the cruises "have to take in more than just the 1000 Islands," he said.

Blount said American Canadian's cruises do "reasonably well" in the region, but "Americans still do not know much about what is up there. I think that the potential is there, but it will take awhile. You have to make people want to go there by boat before you can be successful."