Cruise boom bypasses city Passengers: Baltimore's market for luxury ship passengers suffers from a colder climate and federal regulations.

December 26, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The sight of the new 11-story Veendam sailing majestically under the Key Bridge recently was enough to excite Baltimore cruise lovers.

But the Holland America Line ship was not coming here to pick up passengers.

The ship was merely docking for the evening so the Seattle-based cruise company could wine and dine hundreds of travel agents, hoping they'd be impressed enough to book their clients on the Veendam when it sails out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

While the cruise industry in North America has grown at an annual rate of 7.6 percent, Baltimore has enjoyed little of that boom. This year, passengers embarked on only two cruise ships here; the year before, there were three.

"We book very few out of people out of Baltimore," said Mimi Roeder, owner of Roeder Travel in Cockeysville. "Most people want to go out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale. They want to be warm right away."

Indeed, its location in the colder North Atlantic is a drawback for Baltimore in attracting cruise ships.

In addition, Baltimore is hampered by a federal law that prohibits foreign-flagged passenger vessels from leaving one U.S. port and stopping at another without calling at a foreign port in between.

Ships leaving New York must stop at Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Bermuda, for instance, before they could sail to Baltimore. The Passenger Services Act was enacted to protect U.S. flagged ships from foreign carriers. But the majority of cruise lines today are foreign-owned, with only a handful of U.S. ships still operating.

Further hurting Baltimore's efforts to attract cruise ships, particularly larger ones, is the expensive and time-consuming journey up the Chesapeake Bay.

"The larger the ship, the less apt people are going to be to go anyplace that requires navigation," said Murray Markin, president of Strategic Decisions Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla., consultant firm that advises ports and cruise lines.

Baltimore's inability to attract new cruise lines has at least temporarily sidelined plans to build a $50 million cruise ship terminal in the Inner Harbor, one that would replace the existing warehouse-like passenger facility at the Dundalk marine cargo terminal.

"Before you build a terminal, you better have the business," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "We don't want to build any white elephants."

"What we have to do is attract one major passenger cruise carrier," he said. "So far, we've had numerous discussions, but none has panned out."

While Baltimore may have little hope of attracting lines destined for the Caribbean, officials are trying to develop a niche market to Bermuda. In addition, MPA officials are promoting Baltimore as a port of call for ships en route from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, for instance. Passengers could get off and spend the day and evening in Baltimore, Annapolis or Washington before returning to the ship.

"It can be a great economic development tool," said Harriet Sagel, manager of tourism and special events for the MPA.

"When we have 800 or 900 passengers who get off and spend their money in Baltimore or anywhere in Maryland, it's beneficial to our economy," she said.

Federal regulations, however, allow no one to begin or end their journey at a port of call. And whether Baltimore could become a home port where passengers could embark and disembark is uncertain. Before choosing ports, cruise lines consider a number of factors, including the port's infrastructure, available security, and perhaps most of all, whether the customers are there.

"Baltimore has a good population base and good air service that should be able to support cruise service," said Markin. "There should be some potential opportunities."

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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