More liners come calling

Niche: The port's cruise ship business is growing slightly this year, perhaps an indication that Baltimore can carve out a more substantial niche in cruises.

May 30, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The arrival of the ship Horizon into the port of Baltimore last week seemed mostly routine. A pilot eased it into the berth, men in orange coveralls lashed it to the pier, longshoremen rumbled alongside in forklifts and U.S. Customs agents climbed up the gangway.

But parked as it was inside the Dundalk Marine Terminal, a 570-acre expanse of cranes, warehouses and asphalt, the Horizon's cargo was a conspicuous oddity -- 1,400 people, returning from a week-long vacation to Bermuda.

It's tourist season in the port of Baltimore, and the passenger cruise business has grown slightly. Baltimore will be the host of seven cruise ships this year, up from five in each of the previous two years.

But with the cruise ship business booming nationwide, local port officials aren't satisfied. They have embarked on a lengthy economic study to determine whether Maryland should be spending more money and effort trying to lure passenger ships to Baltimore.

The subject can be a delicate one on the steel-and-grease piers of the Patapsco River, where passenger vessels must share space with the industrial clatter of a working waterfront.

But with the port scrambling for ships of any sort, state officials think that people could be a welcome cargo -- that free-spending tourists are a commodity every bit as profitable as steel containers and automobiles.

"We know cruise ships benefit the local economy tremendously, and we've had some success with them," said Harriet Sagel, manager of tourism development for the Maryland Port Administration. "If the business is there, we should go after it."

Local port officials don't expect Baltimore ever to become a major port of embarkation for cruise ships. It is too far from tropical destinations such as the Caribbean to schedule the seven-day cruises that most customers prefer. The only warm-weather foreign port within easy reach is Bermuda, about a 36-hour sail from the Chesapeake Bay.

And because of the city's distance from foreign ports, its options for cruising are limited. Federal law restricts most passenger trips between American ports to vessels that were built in the United States and are crewed by Americans -- and no such cruise ships are in operation today.

But state law allows cruise ships leaving Baltimore to open their casinos as soon as they pass under the Francis Scott Key Bridge -- a draw to the city, because it helps make up for long sailing times.

And recent trends in the cruise ship business suggest that the market for smaller specialty tours and weekend cruises is growing, which could open up opportunities for secondary destinations like Baltimore.

According to Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group in New York, about 5.9 million people traveled on ships operated by North American cruise companies last year, an increase of almost 8 percent from the year before. And those ships sailed with 91.6 percent of their staterooms full, an industry record.

The cruise lines plan to build more than 25 new vessels over the next two years, and they are not expected to retire much of the fleet that is sailing today. With popular routes from cities such as Miami being filled with newer, larger ships, the cruise lines are looking for new places to deploy their older vessels.

And local officials think Baltimore could be one of those places. Besides week-long cruises to Bermuda, Baltimore offers short tours of the Chesapeake Bay, nearby states and Canada's Maritime Provinces -- the kind of niche cruises that could be ripe for expansion.

And since the few cruises that Baltimore offers typically sell well, the city could have room for more.

"I think we could fill as many as we can get," said Chip Wanek, president of Towson Travel. "Local people love the fact that they can get on and off the ship in Baltimore, and not have to take a flight or a motor coach."

The cost of cruising from Baltimore is roughly the same as from other cities, particularly for local vacationers who don't need to pay airfare. A week-long trip to Bermuda on the Horizon costs as little as $1,162 a person. A weekend "Chesapeake Discovery" tour on Premier Cruises' Sea Breeze, which travels up the bay, through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, down the Atlantic coast and back up the bay, starts at $348 a person.

One common criticism of Baltimore's cruise ship trade, however, is the location of the city's passenger marine facility -- inside the Dundalk Marine Terminal, across a small creek from the city's primary container piers, and nestled next to a large warehouse and crane for paper products operated by the stevedoring firm Balterm.

The cruise ship terminal is little more than a pier and a large, open warehouse for processing passengers. While major cruise cities have luxury skywalks that jut high into the air and deliver people into the ships' grand atria, passengers in Baltimore board at ground level through entrances low in the hull.

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