Cruising the Inner Harbor

June 16, 1994

The famous "night boats" that took passengers and cargo from Baltimore to Norfolk until the early 1950s will never return. Neither will the sidewheel passenger steamers that used to take city dwellers to Eastern Shore beaches. Nevertheless, the successful redevelopment of the Inner Harbor has produced a renaissance of cruising on the Patapsco.

That trend was underscored this spring, when a replica of an 1890s Mississippi River side-wheeler joined fleets of boats that offer harbor excursions during the tourist season. As the number of operators has increased, so has competition. Cruises are no longer limited to weekends but take place throughout the week, day and night.

What has changed all this are the water taxis that now criss-cross the Inner Harbor. For a person living in Canton or Fells Point, for example, the easiest way is to take a water taxi. Such shuttles are frequent. And because one flat fee entitles you to day-long trips, it is economical.

"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 his boating operation in 1977.

These shuttles have done much to enlarge the Inner Harbor in patrons' minds. It no longer is limited to Harborplace and its vicinity but encompasses the shoreline from Canton to Fort McHenry. The influx of Inner Harbor visitors is strengthening businesses in Fells Point, for example.

A few years ago, some boat operators tried to block competitors from entering the market. They argued there would be insufficient business for multiple operators. Fortunately they did not succeed in monopolizing Baltimore's cruise industry. Every time the number of operators has increased, service has improved and prices have declined.

According to Mr. Kane, the operators' "biggest competitor is time" because an estimated 60 percent of day-trippers spend less than eight hours in Baltimore. With the expansion of the Convention Center and the addition of such attractions as the Columbus Center, Baltimore may begin attracting more overnight visitors in the future.

The shuttle boats, in particular, offer good value and make some of the city's main tourist attractions more easily reachable. This Inner Harbor boating revival is a welcome development.

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