Care, feeding of cruise ships

Revival: Local merchants hope to cash in on the port's revitalized cruise ship industry.

March 17, 2002|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

The Celebrity Cruises ship Galaxy will make its first trip out of Baltimore on March 25 loaded with about 21,600 pounds of beef, 25,250 pounds of fresh vegetables, 4,082 gallons of milk and truckloads of just about everything else 1,850 passengers might crave at a midnight buffet in the Caribbean.

"What they buy in food is unbelievable," said Alan H. Kotz, president of Baltimore ship supplier R.S. Stern Inc.

Kotz, who made a sales call at Celebrity's Miami headquarters last month, wants a piece of that business.

The nation's oldest supplier of food and supplies to the shipping industry, R.S. Stern is among dozens of Baltimore businesses vying for a bigger slice of the city's fledgling cruise business.

Buoyed by Celebrity's decision to originate 28 Caribbean and New England cruises from Baltimore this year, the port business community is gearing up for its first large-scale foray into the nation's multibillion-dollar cruise economy.

"We have dealt with cruise companies in the past on a small basis when they have one little trip here for a day," Kotz said. "But this is going to be really the first experience that a lot of people have had with a ship that's being home-based right here in Baltimore."

Suppliers are promoting their goods, the Maryland Port Administration is sprucing up its passenger terminal and the Coast Guard is scrutinizing port security plans in anticipation of the season's first arrival.

"It creates its own economy," said David J. Granek, president of Carisam-Samuel Meisel, a Baltimore company that provides duty-free tobacco and beverages to the cruise industry. "From tour operators, tour guides and restaurants - how many people do you think would like to get off the ship and eat crab cakes?"

The last time large cruises originated in Baltimore was in 1976, when the Soviet ship Mikhail Lermontov offered a series of 10 cruises to the Caribbean and other points south, port officials said. R.S. Stern, which stocks about 6,000 items in its warehouse on Highland Avenue, was one of the suppliers for the 600-passenger cruise ship, named after a 19th-century poet.

Since then, cruise ships often have made Baltimore a stopping point on their East Coast voyages, but the number has fluctuated from year to year and none has made Baltimore its port of origin until now.

The city owes its new cruise business to the Sept. 11 tragedies, which scared many travelers away from flying to their vacation destinations. To counter the trend, Celebrity and other cruise lines began looking to alternative markets that large populations could reach by car or train. It's estimated that up to 80 percent of the passengers who sail out of Baltimore this year will arrive by land.

Despite the tragic circumstances, business leaders welcome the opportunity to showcase their port.

"We appreciate any and all new business coming into the port," said Tom Gaither, general manager of Vane Brothers Co. Among other things, Vane Brothers delivers lubricants, fuel and potable water to cargo vessels and cruise ships such as the 858-foot Galaxy.

A cruise ship coming to Baltimore might take on 265,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil - a relatively small order compared to the needs of large cargo ships that frequent the port, Gaither said.

A fringe trade

No one knows just how much business the Galaxy and other cruise ships calling on Baltimore this year will bring to the city. Historically, it's been a fringe trade operating in the shadow of the port's cargo business, which supplies the great majority of waterfront jobs. Port officials are expecting cruise ships to make about 40 calls to Baltimore this year, a fraction of the hundreds of ship calls that will be logged in 2002.

The Association of Maryland Pilots, whose members guide ships to the port of Baltimore, estimates cruise ships will account for about 2 percent of its workload this year. For the longshoremen who load and unload passenger baggage, a cruise ship means a day's work for about 29 men. Tugboat operators see limited benefit, since most cruise ships are highly maneuverable and require little assistance.

While the business is appreciated, many of those who make their living directly from the shipping industry say they'd rather see more cargo ships coming into port.

But economic development officials and those who feed off the city's tourism industry see a source of revenue that Baltimore is just beginning to tap. Everyone from restaurants and food wholesalers to florists and tour operators has a potential interest in the business.

Few have a larger stake than Carisam-Samuel Meisel, a ship supply business founded in Baltimore by three bachelor brothers in the 1920s. Today, the company supplies duty-free tobacco, beverages and perfumes to commercial ships, resorts, airlines and other buyers who can legally avoid paying taxes on such products.

When a diplomat at the British Embassy in Washington raises a toast during a state dinner, chances are the wine in his glass came from Meisel's warehouse.

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