Cruise ship terminal switch applauded

Move to S. Locust Point said to benefit passengers

`It's a good first step'

December 26, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The state's decision to move its cruise ship terminal from a bustling cargo port in Dundalk to a similar, but less crowded pier in South Locust Point is drawing approval from the local industry that feared tourism would be dampened without a move.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced Wednesday that the state will spend up to $4 million initially to retrofit a shed and berth in South Locust Point in time for the 2006 cruising season. State officials characterized it as a modest initial investment in tight budget times, but a necessary response to the needs of passengers who have squeezed between tractors and cranes to board the ships for the past four years.

The decision ended, at least for now, a running debate about whether the state should sink more money into a new pier closer to shops and restaurants, or take a more frugal option with the city's role as a port of call for luxury cruises fairly new and uncertain.

The state passed on a more upscale and expensive facility in Canton proposed by banker and businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr., even though one study showed there might be more economic impact from that location, and another showed it offered better ship maneuverability.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which sells cruise vacations and led a group of tourism agencies and companies in calling for a new home for the ships, supported the selection of South Locust Point.

"Is it going to be everything we want it to be? Probably not, but it's a good first step," said Chuck Jackson, a spokesman. "We hope the governor keeps talking about it."

Baltimore and other Mid-Atlantic cities grew as cruise ship destinations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks diverted cruise ships from New York. Cruise lines discovered that passengers liked driving to nearby ports, rather than spending more money to fly to traditional cruise cities such as New York and Miami.

Consultants advised Maryland officials to proceed cautiously with development of a terminal because cruise lines come and go and the state isn't likely to grow into a top-tier destination. Further, passengers didn't care about an industrial setting as long as they could easily board the ship.

The state has learned that cruise lines can be fickle. Last year, Maryland attracted 70 cruises, a record. But that number won't likely be matched in 2005 because three cruise lines have decided not to return. Royal Caribbean has booked 30 cruises so far from Baltimore.

Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, a trade group, said drive-up ports have been growing in popularity since 2001, but Baltimore is at a disadvantage. The Bermuda cruises that have been so popular from the port over the past couple of years are falling out of favor somewhat. Cruises to Europe and to the Northeast United States and Canada are the "in" trips.

Federal law requires foreign-flagged ships to call on, or end at, a foreign port, rather than sail to only U.S. ports. And Baltimore is an eight- to 10-hour trip up Chesapeake Bay, which makes those voyages impractical from here.

But, Crye said, the investment in a dedicated cruise ship terminal, even in an industrial setting, with easy parking and access to amenities is a good investment in a competitive environment.

Many other cities and states are investing in new facilities to grab some of the $12.9 billion in direct spending by passengers and cruise lines, according to a 2003 report by the council. Maryland, in the middle of the pack, reported $106 million in income from cruisers and cruise lines that year, the most recent for which figures are available.

Crye also said that because of new maritime security requirements, electronic tracking capabilities for crew and passengers on and off ships is vital to a smooth trip. Port officials said that hasn't been a problem: Only one cruise this season reported a significant immigration-related delay in getting passengers off a ship.

"The watch word is convenience," Crye said. "You need electronic capabilities and creature comforts. The vacation starts at the dock and it takes a lot away from the experience if you have to stand in the rain."

Travel agent Mary Joan Levin echoed the convenience mantra. Passengers are less concerned about an industrial view and more interested in easy access to the highway, their cars and the ship.

"Cruises do fantastic here," said Levin, owner of Royal Travel Planner on Charles Street in Baltimore. "But Dundalk is very congested. There's too many other things going on in the port and it takes a little longer to get in and out of there. South Locust Point will be good. And it's closer to the Inner Harbor if people want to get out there."

It's not clear if the new location would boost visits to area attractions, hotels and restaurants, although she and others said the new facility couldn't hurt.

Another benefit of South Locust Point, say some residents of Canton, the proposed alternative site, is that it wouldn't affect people living nearby. Steve Andre said the area around his home in Canton Cove is mostly residential, while "Locust Point is more convenient to the highway and to downtown."

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