More cruises are scheduled to call at the Port of Baltimore thi season than at any time in the last 15 years, as the port strives to gain a piece of the competitive market.
Port authorities say that, starting Monday, 14 cruises will depart Baltimore on the way to such places as Bermuda, the Caribbean, Canada and South America.
The season's first cruise will be a six-day trip to Bermuda on Celebrity Cruises' S.S. Meridian. The last cruise of the year will be a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean aboard the Cunard's Queen Elizabeth II in November.
In the early 1970s, as many as 10,000 passengers sailed from Baltimore each year, and in 1973 and 1974, 19 cruises were launched from the port.
But the fuel crisis in the mid 1970s changed the face of the cruise business. Many lines no longer could afford the fuel costs of sailing ships from the Northeast to the Caribbean. A number of lines went out of business and most of the remaining ones headed for Florida. There they developed cruise packages that included air fare to the ports.
The number of cruises from Baltimore fell drastically. In 1983, only two cruises sailed from the port. Last year, there were eight.
But now the port, which has traditionally focused on shipments of coal, cars, steel, lumber and other commodities, is looking to increase the movement of people, said Harriet Sagel, head of the port's customer relations.
"I'm making a concerted effort to make calls on the cruise lines to make them familiar with what Baltimore has to offer," Sagel said.
New lines calling this year are Royal Viking Sun, which will stop in Baltimore as it tours the East Coast, and two cruises by Regent Sun, one to Bermuda and one to Canada. In addition, Princess Lines is introducing a cruise from Italy to Florida via Baltimore.
Mike Pawlus, manager of scheduling with Royal Viking, said the Baltimore stop will take advantage of the Preakness next week. The visit will be the first since 1986 for the line and is a result of booking more domestic cruises when the Persian Gulf war was in progress.
A few months ago, demand for international cruises had dropped off, so Royal Viking decided to offer three "Americana" cruises down the East Coast. Pawlus said the line plans to stop in Baltimore next year as well on a fall cruise to Canada.
Benefits of the cruise business are the ripple effect that can be felt throughout the local economy, Sagel said. Cruise prices start at about $900 for a week-long trip to Bermuda. But passengers frequently spend money on taxis, hotels, restaurants and souvenir stores either before or after the cruise, and that helps the local businesses.
Baltimore hasn't the climate or the location to become a prime cruise spot such as Miami, where more than 1,811 cruises depart each year.
But Sagel said there is a niche that Baltimore can fill, and in the past few years, the port's marketing department has increased its calls to cruise operators, trying to convince them of Baltimore's cruise potential.
They hold up Baltimore's tourist sites such as Fort McHenry and the National Aquarium, its proximity to Washington and Annapolis, and the affluence of the area's population. They also point out that Baltimore usually is able to fill the cruise ships that do sail from here.
"By coming into the port, there's a whole spectrum they can offer the passengers," Sagel said.
Richard D. O'Leary, president of Virginia-based Cruise International, said Baltimore's primary disadvantage is that it lies 160 miles up the Chesapeake Bay. "On the other hand, Baltimore as a big advantage. It's in the middle of a huge population center."
Cruise International, which sails cruises from Boston; Philadelphia; Norfolk, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and Wilmington, N.C., has sailed from Baltimore for nearly 20 years, usually sending a couple of cruises in the spring and a couple in the fall.
This year, the company will sail two cruises from Baltimore. In the first visit June 14, the ship Regent Sun will sail for a seven-day Bermuda cruise. Upon its return, the ship will make a second cruise to Canada, stopping in New York; Newport, R.I.; Portland, Maine; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Quebec City; and Montreal.
Other cruises scheduled to leave Baltimore this year are four trips to Bermuda by the S.S. Meridian, a cruise to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in Ivaran Lines' passenger/container vessel, and a day cruise to Nassau aboard Princess Cruises' Royal Princess.
"Maryland has been very, very effective in dealing with its cruise people," said John Dvornik, vice president of sales and marketing for Apple Vacations in Philadelphia.
Dvornik said passenger surveys have shown that passengers prefer to leave from Baltimore than from New York, which can be more expensive and congested.
"Apple is very interested in developing the Port of Baltimore," Dvornik said. "We'll do whatever is necessary to continue that growth."