The first cruise ship docked Friday morning at the Port of Seattle's new Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, kicking off a cruise season that is expected to bring more than 800,000 passengers to the city.

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What began a decade ago as a trickle of cruise ships is now a flood, and Seattle’s new Smith Cove Cruise Terminal opened Friday to help serve the estimated 801,000 passengers who will flow through the city this year.

The 1,380-passenger Amsterdam, flagship of the Seattle-based Holland America Line, was the first to use the two-berth terminal at Pier 91 in Interbay, docking Friday and heading out in the afternoon. It kicked off the cruise season that will see 211 sailings from Seattle this year from now into October, mostly weeklong round trips to Southeast Alaska, but also a handful of short local cruises.

Passengers boarding the Amsterdam swirled through Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, a two-story, 143,000-square-foot metal-clad building with picture-window views of Elliott Bay, Mount Rainier and downtown. Once on board the ship, whose topmost deck was almost level with nearby Magnolia Bluff, they settled in for a weekend cruise to Victoria and Vancouver, B.C., that will return here Monday. The new structure replaces Terminal 30 on the downtown waterfront, which has reverted to cargo duty; downtown’s one-berth Bell Street Terminal at Pier 66 continues to host cruise ships.

The new terminal is like a seaside mini-airport, with baggage and cruise-line check-in counters and U.S. Customs (because ships stop at British Columbia ports). And it has the lineups, and the utilitarian architecture, of an airport.

Economic boon

For Seattleites, the cruise season is an economic boon and a big investment, with some lingering concerns about traffic and pollution.

The taxpayer-funded Port of Seattle spent $72 million to build the Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, said port spokesman Peter McGraw. The building sits at the end of Pier 91, which juts more than 4,000 feet into Elliott Bay. Over the decades, the pier has hosted cargo ships, fishing vessels and the U.S. Navy.

Each cruise ship that docks in Seattle brings a wave of money. The port estimates that cruises are worth $312 million in annual business revenue. Passengers and crews spend on hotel rooms, meals, taxis and souvenirs in downtown Seattle (sometimes almost swamping Pike Place Market, a favorite spot). Cruise lines buy supplies and food locally for their bountiful shipboard buffets.

For many downtown hotels, the cruise season is a welcome boost, especially during this economic slump. The Edgewater Hotel, for example, books about 300 rooms a month to passengers on pre-cruise stays, said spokeswoman Christina Starr.

The new Smith Cove Cruise Terminal, reached via the approach road to Magnolia Bridge and the West Galer Street Flyover, will also bring more traffic congestion to the area along Elliott Avenue West and 15th Avenue West, from private cars, buses, taxis and supply trucks.

The terminal will host six ships on summer weekends — two a day arriving and departing each Friday, Saturday and Sunday — including the towering Golden Princess, which carries 2,600 passengers and about 1,100 crew.

Friday mornings could have the most impact on commuters because ships arrive in the early morning and unload passengers and resupply, then sail out again in the afternoon.

Magnolia Community Club president Randall Thomsen said he is “cautiously optimistic” about traffic but remains concerned about the route to and from the terminal’s drop-off area and parking lot, which weaves and requires some quick lane changes.

The port and the Seattle Department of Transportation have been working on signage and signal-light timing and will monitor traffic flow in the first month.

Pollution from cruise ships’ diesel engines has been a concern, particularly because the ships keep the engines running while docked to generate onboard power.

However, Smith Cove Cruise Terminal has shore power available at both berths, one of the few ports in North America to provide it in order to cut emissions.

However, shore power won’t be available at Smith Cove for a few more weeks, and not all ships have been modified to use it. Ships that can’t use shore power (and Bell Street Terminal doesn’t yet offer it) have agreed to use a lower-sulfur fuel when docked here, to cut emissions.

More than Vancouver

Given the economic slowdown, Seattle isn’t expected to match last year’s record 886,039 cruise passengers when, for the first time, it surpassed Vancouver, B.C., the other major port for Alaska cruises, in passenger numbers.

Yet Seattle cruises have boomed over the past decade, thanks to new faster ships that can make it to Southeast Alaska and back in a week; the fly-in convenience and lure of Seattle; and a lot of marketing.

Back in 1999, just 6,615 passengers took cruises from Seattle. This summer could bring more than 800,000. Our ships have definitely come in.

Kristin Jackson: or 206-464-2271