28th sail of the season

Baltimore's new cruise terminal is popular with seafaring public

November 21, 2006|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Five years since Baltimore began offering regular cruises from its port, the business appears to be brisk enough to keep at least one vessel busy for the season.

The last of this season's 28 Royal Caribbean cruises left Sunday aboard the Grandeur of the Seas. About the same number sailed to the Caribbean and Bermuda last year and a similar count is expected next year.

Cruisers discovered Baltimore, and a handful of other ports, after the 2001 terrorist attacks diverted ships from New York. Passengers in this region liked the convenience of driving instead of having to fly to New York or Florida, according to the port and travel agents.

This year, agents and port officials said passengers also liked the new $13 million passenger terminal built in a converted paper shed in South Locust Point. They are hoping it will spur more cruise lines to give Baltimore a chance, though no other companies have agreed to provide service here next year, officials said.

"The first day of anything has some rough patches, but once we were through it, it was smooth sailing," said J.B. Hanson, a port spokesman. "We're aggressively looking at adding additional cruise lines now that we have a dedicated terminal."

Cruise ships had been using a berth at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, but officials thought it was causing safety and convenience problems. The 2,000 passengers per ship rarely complained about the industrial setting but were getting in the way of cargo operations.

Officials studied trends in the business and what it would cost to build a new terminal in Canton. They decided it was not worth investing up to $50 million for a new building and dredging the harbor. Officials concluded they couldn't compete with the biggest East Coast cruise markets and should make a more conservative investment.

Passengers began using the new facility in May. It has ticketing counters, bathrooms and security screening. It's also just off Interstate 95 and has room for 500 cars. And passengers no longer have to share space with a lot of cargo.

Now that there is room to grow, it's unclear how much more business the region can support. Baltimore ranked ninth among East Coast cruise ports last year, the middle of the pack - a little smaller than Boston and a little bigger than Philadelphia, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Ports in Florida lead the pack. The association estimates that those in Miami, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral each embarked more than a million passengers in 2005. It estimated that New York boarded 370,000 last year and Baltimore had 67,000.

Cruising has been growing in popularity. More than a third of the 100 million people who have taken a cruise since 1980 have done so in the past five years. About 11.5 million people total took a cruise in 2005, up from about 10.85 million in 2004.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Baltimore's only cruise line, has no plans to bring another ship to the Baltimore port next year. It and its sister line, Celebrity Cruise Lines, had helped Baltimore reach a peak of about 60 cruises in 2004.

The company said the other ships were promised elsewhere. An estimated 105,000 passengers took cruises from Baltimore that year.

Travel agent Mary Joan Levin said she could fill more ships.

"They sell out here," she said. "We have no problem selling them. [Passengers] come from Virginia, Pennsylvania and all over Maryland. They don't want to fly anymore to get on a cruise. I flew recently in August and it was a nightmare, so I don't blame them."

Levin said Bermuda and Caribbean cruises always sell well. Cruises to New England and Canada, which will be added next year, also are popular. She added that cruises from Baltimore to Europe are considered impractical because it takes a day each to sail up and down the Chesapeake Bay and five days to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Levin said people typically don't want to be on a ship longer than 12 days.

AAA Mid-Atlantic, which also sells cruise vacations and had lobbied for a new passenger facility, said its cruise sales were up earlier in the year but now are slightly trailing last year's sales.

Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for the motor club, said it has sold $48.5 million worth of cruises this year in the region, which includes Maryland, Washington, Delaware and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Cruises sail from ports in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Bayonne, N.J.

"People have found the convenience of local ports have made cruise vacations more convenient and attractive," she said. "The new facility in Baltimore certainly seems to be meeting the needs of travelers."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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