Snazzier cruise terminal is sought

Loss of 3 shipping lines fuels effort for better site

Current industrial pier belittled

August 13, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Energized by news that the popular Carnival Cruise Lines will not sail from Baltimore's port next year, a group of business and tourism leaders say they'll push the governor to finance a modern cruise ship terminal before more ships slip away.

Three of Baltimore's five cruise lines have signaled they will not return next year, which local leaders called a troubling trend for the promising cruise business.

While none of the lines publicly blamed the current facility, a metal shed sandwiched between cranes and tractors at Dundalk Marine Terminal, the advocates said a little passenger pampering in a less industrial setting would surely help Baltimore thrive in a competitive business that has increasingly targeted smaller ports.

State officials agree that a new cruise ship terminal for Baltimore is a desirable goal but have struggled for years to find an appropriate site and to justify the big price tag it is likely to carry.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who sits on the state Board of Public Works that could decide whether the state should finance a terminal, said yesterday that he believes Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should give a new terminal a higher priority.

"We can't afford to lose ground in this area," he said. "Maryland's share of this industry should continue to grow. ... Whether it takes new, stronger leadership, or additional resources, we owe it to taxpayers to develop this opportunity fully. Something is wrong when a service is diminished after it has been so well received."

But an Ehrlich aide said yesterday that there is no money for a cruise terminal in the draft of next year's budget, which the governor will shape this fall. Studies continue, she said.

John White, a spokesman for the motor club AAA Mid-Atlantic, which is spearheading the latest push for action, said nearby competitors Norfolk, Va., and Bayonne, N.J. are investing in their facilities to entice cruise lines to make longer-term commitments. His group plans to send a letter to Ehrlich before the end of the month.

"The cruise business is something that has blossomed beyond anyone's expectations, yet from a cruise passenger perspective, it has never been on the radar screen as a transportation priority, or at least not near the top," White said. "Now is the time, or we may lose the gains we've made."

White said among those who agreed to sign the letter to the governor is Royal Caribbean, the shipping line with the port's busiest schedule this year with 21 cruises. It and sister line, the more upscale Celebrity, which has nine cruises on this year's port schedule, are the only two to confirm they will return next year.

That will bring about 30 cruises, about half of this year's total, to Baltimore, although there is still time to book more, port officials said.

The total would still be considerably more than the handful of ships that called on Baltimore before business began picking up a few years ago.

In addition to Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Lines said it will not return and Holland America Line has not scheduled any cruises in 2005.

Joining AAA and Royal Caribbean on the letter are the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, the Maryland Tourism Council, the Maryland Hotel & Lodging Association, the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

Those groups and others stand to gain from new cruise business. AAA gleans about a quarter of its travel sales from booking cruises, the association said.

The state, however, has proceeded cautiously, based on the advice in a 2002 consultant's study that said Baltimore will never attract the level of business in New York or Florida.

Still, smaller port's such as Baltimore have grown significantly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 made driving preferable to flying to far-flung cruise-ship ports.

Few passengers have complained publicly or to travel agents about the current terminal.

State officials say they are considering moving cruise ships to a less busy location, possibly in Locust Point or Canton, where businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr. has proposed building a terminal as part of his Canton Crossing retail-hotel-office complex. Locust Point already serves as a backup facility for cruise ships.

It's a "balancing act" to please business, port, cruise ship and political interests, said Dennis M. Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, who has been helping coordinate the state's cruise terminal efforts.

Castleman said the most detailed study of Baltimore's cruise business potential yet undertaken would be completed in a week or so.

The Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the existing cruise terminal and the state's public port facilities, would like to use the space now occupied by the terminal in Dundalk for non-human cargo.

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