Betting on cruises

Travel: Millionaires' rivalry over new ship terminal is puzzling because business is chancy.

March 10, 2002

MARYLAND'S economic boosters will get some bragging rights later this month, when Celebrity's 1,850-passenger Galaxy starts using Baltimore as its home port.

That ship and its rivals are expected to make 42 cruises altogether from Dundalk this year.

Celebrity came here by default. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the line simply wanted to shift its New York-based ships to other home ports.

Celebrity, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean, is a big catch. It gives Baltimore instant respect in cruise circles. Nevertheless, a recent consultants' study advises the Maryland Port Administration not to go overboard, and for good reason.

"Cruise vessels by their nature are mobile resorts, capable of redeployment at a moment's notice," consultants Bermello, Ajamil & Partners reported, while praising the growth potential of the Caribbean and New England destinations that Baltimore cruises serve.

Why does this caution matter? Because taxpayers and private financiers need to make substantial investments soon if Baltimore hopes to keep and develop its cruise business. For example, Dundalk Marine Terminal currently has only a converted cargo shed serving cruise passengers.

If Baltimore's viability as a home port is demonstrated this year, a permanent cruise terminal becomes a matter of some urgency. But in approaching that decision, the Maryland Port Administration has to be mindful of risks.

An industry trend is toward bigger and bigger cruise liners. If that trend continues, the Francis Scott Key Bridge could become an insurmountable obstacle. Another Baltimore disadvantage is the six-to 10- hour sailing time required to reach the port from the mouth of the Chesapeake.

Nevertheless, politically connected heavy hitters are vying for a terminal. Bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr. wants to build it just west of Fells Point; banking entrepreneur Edwin F. Hale Sr. favors Canton. Two Locust Point locations also have been proposed.

This keen rivalry is puzzling, as are promises of private investment. Terminals seldom produce much money, since most passengers are unlikely to spend extra nights in Baltimore before or after their cruise.

Could there be some other motive for the millionaires' rivalry? After all, when talk first began some 25 years ago about building a new cruise terminal, it was linked to the possibility of introducing gambling on Chesapeake Bay.

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