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First The Cruise, Then The Port: Rocky Point Welcomes First Cruise Without Home Port

The crowd cheered as Sonora’s Gov. Claudia Pavlovich walked among the hundreds of people gathered on the main pier in Puerto Peñasco on Thursday. Behind her, Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ blue and white Astoria cruise ship glimmers in the afternoon sunlight. It’s the first cruise to embark from the small beach-side town known to Arizona tourists as Rocky Point.

"This is a great day for Sonora," Pavlovich said during a presentation ahead of the Astoria's launch Thursday evening.

The city has been abuzz with anticipation since the ship appeared just off the coast early Wednesday morning.

“When we walked out on our balcony and we saw a ship out on our port — people here say it’s like Christmas," said Patricia Murphy, of Phoenix.

She and her husband Mark have been coming to Rocky Point for decades, and they're joining the Astoria’s maiden voyage for his sixtieth birthday and their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

The cruise will traverse the Sea of Cortez for 11 days, stopping in seven cities: Topolobampo, Mazatlán, Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Loreto, Santa Rosalia and Guaymas. Then back to Puerto Peñasco.

But after years of waiting, and without a cruise port for the ship dock at, there were doubts this day would come.

“They said, ‘Oh, you’ll never see a ship come in here,'" Murphy said.

The Rocky Point cruise had become a local legend.

“Like a myth," said Maru Zacatelco, who owns EcoFun rentals, the official provider for the cruise in Rocky Point. "Nobody believed that it was coming.”

“It was highly anticipated and dreamed about," added local Maria Brown. "And now it's finally here. Like a dream come true.

“Even yesterday there were people who didn’t seem to think that the ship was going to dock here," Rocky Point Mayor Kiko Munro said. "And now, well, they’re seeing it so they have to believe it.”

Munro was aboard the Astoria for a pre-deprature fundraiser to show off the ship.

He's been in office for five years and working toward the cruise the entire time, he said. Often with the support of Arizona leaders, including Gov. Doug Ducey.

Now that it’s arrived, he wants to see his town become a cruise hub — providing supplies and services; opening a cruise line call center; and attracting bigger ships.

“It’s going to be a before and after for Peñasco, for the state of Sonora and for the whole region — the mega-region between Arizona and Rocky Point," Munro said.

But before any of that can happen, Rocky Point needs a home port.

Getting to the on-ship event Wednesday exemplified some of the challenges of operating without one.

People lined up for hours waiting to board smaller boats, called tenders, that would take them about 20 minutes off-shore to the waiting ship. Until there’s a cruise port, passengers, luggage and provisions will all have to be carted out to sea before every departure.

“It is short term, and I don’t know if I want to call it a solution," said John Dennis, vice president of sales and marketing for Cruise and Maritime Voyages' U.S. branch.

Rocky Point is the perfect place to launch a cruise showcasing the incredible beauty of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, he said. So the company was willing to make an investment in this first season. But the ship is small — each of the three cruises this month will only average about 450 passengers, compared to many cruises that carry thousands of people — and that means costs are high.

“We will need to graduate to a larger vessel to ensure the long-term viability for the program," he said. "But for larger vessel, unfortunately, even a remotely larger vessel, we would not be able to do this."

A larger ship would require a port.

Construction has begun on a cruise home port in Rocky Point. But it's been halted since 2015. Now, waves crash against piles of rocks and concrete blocks where the jetty disappears into the sea. It's surrounded by rusting, partly destroyed fencing and faded signs warning passersby not to enter.

“It’s been quite a difficult process," Sonoran tourism coordinator Luis Nunez said of building the port.

A lack of funds and changing administrations have caused hiccups along the way, and finishing the project will cost upwards of $50 million. So far the federal government hasn’t supplied the funds to complete the port, Nunez said, so he and others are looking into way to get private investors involved.

“We are considering very seriously that alternative," he said. But since the property still belong to the federal government, it would have to approve the new path forward.

But with the arrival of the Astoria this week, some in the community believe securing funds for a port is all but guaranteed.

“This is going to make it happen. I’m very sure," said Marcos Vucovich. He owns a property development company in Rocky Point and hopes the cruise will attract tourism and development. “It’s going to bring nicer night clubs, nicer restaurants as well. So that’s why we’re excited. Because it’s going to bring so many other items good for the town.”

There's a lot of hope for future. And for now, with the Astoria setting sail into the golden sunset, Rocky Point is celebrating it's victory — and hoping that with the arrival of the cruise, a port will follow.

Because without a port, the chances for future cruises here are slim.

Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.