Criss-crossing the Inner Harbor

May 26, 1994

When a replica of an 1890s Mississippi River side-wheeler started taking visitors out of Baltimore this spring, it underscored a major trend. As tourism has increased in recent years, the Inner Harbor has become an increasingly popular base for tour boat operators.

The result has been a pleasant one for Baltimoreans and visitors alike. Keen competition has improved service and brought prices down. For a modest one-time charge, a visitor now can ride the boats all day long, stopping at more than a dozen locations.

One consequence of this busy water traffic has been a gradual recognition by decision-makers as well as visitors that the Inner Harbor is no longer limited to Harborplace and its vicinity but encompasses the whole shoreline from Canton to Fort McHenry. Thus a family starting the day at the Aquarium may take a boat and have lunch in Fells Point and end in the afternoon at the Baltimore Museum of Industry in Locust Point without having to move and repark the car.

"If we want people to visit a maximum number of sites, we have to do that without forcing them to constantly reach into their pockets," says Ed Kane, who started operating boats in 1977.

Mr. Kane's Water Taxi -- and its main competitor, Harbor Shuttle -- exemplify boat services that are essentially water-borne bus lines. They criss-cross the harbor according to a frequent schedule, taking and disembarking passengers.

Several other companies offer harbor cruises out of Baltimore. Competition among them has steadily increased since 1992, when Harbor Cruises Ltd. -- operator of such boats as the Bay Lady and the Lady Baltimore -- was challenged by the Spirit of Baltimore, a vessel belonging to a big French tour company.

Although those rivals initially fought like cats and dogs, they have carved sufficient markets to survive. In fact, service and food aboard the cruise ships has improved as a result of competition.

Boat operators doubt that there is enough business to ever warrant peak-time commuter boats, say, from Fells Point or the HarborView condominium to the Pratt Street piers on the edge of the downtown business district.

There is room for many other improvements and experiments, however. Baltimore may never again be the kind of hub for passenger ships it was less than a century ago, but harbor boats clearly are experiencing a revival.

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