Despite success, Carnival won't be sailing out of port in 2005

Cruise line's commitment was always 1 year, it says

August 12, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Carnival Cruise Lines, which disappointed hundreds of customers this summer by canceling their vacations after overbooking cruises out of Baltimore, says it won't be sailing out of the port next year, despite the popularity of the trips.

The cruise line had always intended to sail the Miracle, a new vessel, for only one year from Baltimore before moving its base permanently to Tampa, Fla., a company official said yesterday.

"Obviously, our program out of Baltimore has been extraordinarily successful; the sales have been fabulous," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a Carnival spokeswoman. "We'd like to come back to Baltimore at some point. It's just that the program for 2005 is already completed, and we don't have a ship to come up there."

Norwegian Cruise Lines, another of the five lines that make up the port of Baltimore's fledgling but growing cruise industry, also has no cruises planned out of Baltimore next year, a Norwegian spokeswoman said yesterday. She had no further details on the company's reason for eliminating Baltimore as a departure point.

But Royal Caribbean, one of the most popular of the five cruise companies sailing from the port, plans to increase its number of Baltimore cruises and also bring back its sister line, the more-upscale Celebrity, next year.

Officials at the Maryland Port Administration said yesterday that Carnival's decision is typical of cruise lines, which generally do not make longer-term commitments to ports.

"They make year-to-year commitments," said Deidre N. McCabe, a port spokeswoman. "Because one line doesn't call a port one year doesn't mean they can't come back the following year. ...We will definitely be working on bringing them back in 2006 along with other lines. We don't think [Carnival's decision] will negatively impact the decisions of other lines."

Port officials have said they expect to handle 240,000 cruise passengers this year, more than double the 115,813 last year and far more than the 5,103 in 1999.

Baltimore's cruise business picked up after the Sept. 11 attacks, attracting passengers who were reluctant to fly to cruise terminals in Florida.

About 30 cruises have been confirmed out of Baltimore so far for 2005 - about half this year's number - but the schedule is incomplete and the port is working with lines to bring in additional departures, McCabe said.

Carnival's plans for 2005 came as no surprise to state economic development officials, who said they had been given a short-term commitment from the start, one official said yesterday.

"This was a one-year deal with their ship, the Miracle," said Dennis M. Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Department of Business and Economic Development. "We knew the Miracle was going to be here for this maiden year and be repositioned down to Tampa. We were very fortunate to have Carnival here. Carnival has done very well here. I'm sure they will be back."

Carnival was able to put the Miracle at Baltimore's port for the line's first year of a full series of voyages because the new ship was not committed to any existing route, said de la Cruz.

The Miracle is expected to carry about 35,000 passengers this year on a series of seven-day voyages to Key West, Fla., and the Bahamas through October. It is also offering a single two-day "cruise to nowhere," sailing into the Atlantic and back, at the end of October.

"The sales have just been tremendous," de la Cruz said. "We don't have any space left for the fall voyages."

But the company is now shifting some of the vessels in its fleet, including moving the Miracle next year to Tampa to replace another ship.

"It's not a matter of not wanting to put a ship up [in Baltimore]. It's a matter of logistics," she said. "You don't want to cannibalize a program to someone else that's successful."

The losses of Carnival and Norwegian next year are typical shifts in the cruise industry, Castleman said yesterday.

"I'm not concerned about the long-term cruise business in Baltimore because the port of Baltimore is working on a great strategy to make sure the cruise industry has an opportunity to be here, and we are working with them on ... finding a suitable port for the longer term, a cruise ship terminal berth," he said.

Castleman said state officials are awaiting the findings of a study on several possible locations for a cruise terminal before choosing a potential site.

Aris Melissaratos, the state's secretary of business and economic development, has said he would like to see a new terminal built but that sufficient political support may be lacking and that obtaining $50 million or more for a new terminal could be difficult.

A consultant's report released in 2002 had advised Maryland officials to proceed cautiously in an industry where preferences shift with the wind.

Carnival recently disappointed hundreds of would-be Baltimore cruise passengers by involuntarily bumping them from the line's eight cruises this summer because of overbooking. Carnival has said the problem occurred because the line hadn't gotten nearly as many cancellations in Baltimore as it does at its other ports.

The absence of the popular Carnival cruises next year will be another disappointment, said Barbara Cooper, a travel agent with Bennett World Travel in Ellicott City.

"It's a shame," Cooper said of Carnival's decision. Baltimore's port "is a great venue; it's so easy to go out of here. I know there will be a lot of people disappointed that they don't have as many choices."

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