Fear of flying may bring more cruise ships here

Since terror attacks, people might feel safer driving to ports

November 03, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

With many travelers afraid to fly, the battered cruise-ship industry is beginning to send liners to secondary ports such as Baltimore in hopes that vacationers will be willing to drive or take a bus - instead of a plane - to board their vessel.

The question for Baltimore and other cities hoping to profit from the trend is whether the business will stay once the memory of Sept. 11 begins to fade from the nation's consciousness. The answer could affect whether state transportation officials decide to invest in a new cruise-ship passenger terminal in the Inner Harbor.

Industry executives and analysts say the answer is a definite maybe.

"I think what happened Sept. 11 made us look a little deeper," said Richard E. Sasso, president of Miami-based Celebrity Cruises Inc., which announced this week that it will offer 19 round-trip cruises from Baltimore to the Caribbean next year.

"I believe that there's a likelihood that this will be very successful and allow us to think maybe we've been missing this opportunity [in Baltimore] for many, many years."

While the cruise industry was beginning to make forays into secondary ports prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Celebrity is the first to gamble on launching Caribbean cruises from the Northeast, which has traditionally been shunned by the industry because of the distance involved. The majority of such cruises originate in Florida - more than a day's sail from Baltimore.

The decision to try Baltimore came after the company was forced to divert one of its ships, the Zenith, from New York to Baltimore for weekly sailings to Bermuda after the terrorist attacks. Those voyages ended this week, but the experiment went so well that Celebrity decided to originate a series of 10- and 11-day cruises in Baltimore beginning next spring.

Industry analysts are divided over whether the new sailings will succeed. At issue is whether travelers are willing to spend money on expensive vacations during a recession and whether travelers are willing to leave home for nearly two weeks during a time of relative uncertainty. Demand is highest for seven-day cruises and three- to four-day cruises, said Murray Markin, a cruise industry consultant in Boca Raton, Fla.

"I don't know if it's going to get the fairest test of how productive a port like Baltimore could be," Markin said, referring to the current economic climate.

But the drive toward secondary ports has been coming for some time as expanding cruise lines look for ways to bring ships closer to the people who sail on them, said Paul Keung, an industry analyst with CIBC World Markets. That trend may have eventually reached Baltimore even without the events of Sept. 11, though probably not nearly as quickly, he said.

"They [Celebrity] are not alone," Keung said. "Everyone is focusing on increasing ports of call into secondary markets."

Celebrity officials note Baltimore's proximity to Washington, Philadelphia and population centers in New Jersey. In total, the cruise line estimates, there are 51 million people who live within 250 miles - a relatively short drive - of Baltimore.

Port officials market Baltimore's inland location to cruise lines, arguing that the city lies closer to potential Midwest vacationers than do other East Coast ports.

The state recently hired a consulting firm to study the potential for attracting more cruises to Baltimore, but results aren't expected until January. Among other things, the study will help state transportation officials decide whether to invest in a new passenger terminal and more marketing, said Kate Philips, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration.

Currently, cruise ships calling on Baltimore disembark at the Dundalk Passenger Terminal, which lies a bus or cab ride away from shops and restaurants in the Inner Harbor. At least one local developer has offered a site for a new cruise terminal near the Inner Harbor, but the proposal is only in the discussion phase.

Celebrity's Caribbean cruises will be an important test for the city's tourism potential. If they succeed, Sasso said, Celebrity will likely add more trips to Baltimore, possibly giving the port a year-round cruise business. But the cruise line isn't likely to make a long-term commitment for now.

"They are expensive ships," Celebrity's president said. "We can't put them in a trade that doesn't perform. There's a great deal of risk when you go into a new operation."

Under the best-case scenario, the cruises will sell out quickly, prompting other lines to take a look at Baltimore, travel experts said. That could result in millions of dollars of new economic activity related to tourism.

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