Fewer cruises to call in 2008

`Grandeur' will shift to new Va. terminal

April 10, 2007|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Come 2008, Baltimore's ship is sailing - and it might not come back.

Royal Caribbean International said yesterday that it will move the Grandeur of the Seas, the lone cruise ship now calling on Baltimore, to Norfolk, Va., halfway through the season because it doesn't have enough ships to go around.

That means the number of cruises from Baltimore, which peaked at 60 in 2004, will drop from 29 in 2007 to 12 in 2008 if no other cruise lines sign on.

"Business has been good," Lyan Sierra-Caro, a spokeswoman for Royal Caribbean, said of both ports of call. "Sailing out of the Northeast has been great, but we only have so many ships. We'd love to have one in every port."

She said no decisions have been made about 2009.

Several factors go into planning an itinerary, beyond demand from passengers and eagerness of ports to berth a ship, industry representatives say.

Some have to do with facilities at the port, said Christine Fischer, a spokeswoman for Cruise Lines International Association.

"Cruise lines look at factors such as infrastructure, how easy is it to get around once you're in port, what provisions are there for the ship and location," she said.

Hoping to sway consideration some, Norfolk opened this season a $36 million cruise terminal, financed mostly by the city, in the heart of its harbor next to a collection of maritime museums.

It has 35 cruises scheduled this year on Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines, and a few more are expected next year, according to Richard Conti, executive director of Norfolk's National Maritime Center, which includes the cruise ship terminal and neighboring museums.

"We're trying to position ourselves," Conti said. "Once we started building at this very special location next to the museum, we tried to make it as nice as it could be and to give it a dual function as a special event location."

The state-owned Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore spent $13 million last year to convert a paper shed in Locust Point to a dedicated cruise terminal. It was a compromise based on a consultant's study that said cruise business could be good in Baltimore but would never reach the level of the ports in Miami or New York.

The conversion allowed the port to move passengers away from the busier and more industrial Dundalk Marine Terminal to a facility built just for cruises without the expense of building anew in the Inner Harbor.

A port spokesman said Baltimore still has a good relationship with Royal Caribbean.

"We have some exciting things on the horizon," said J.B. Hanson, the spokesman. "We were made aware of [Royal Caribbean's] decision to cut back on a few of the cruises, but we still have an excellent rapport with them."

The cruise business took off in Baltimore and Norfolk when ships were relocated from New York after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Cruise lines discovered that passengers enjoyed boarding the ships closer to home so they didn't have to fly. Most cruises head to Bermuda and the Caribbean, although Canadian and New England cruises have been growing in popularity.

Cruising in general remains hugely popular, with the cruise industry trade group predicting that a record 12.5 million people will cruise this year, compared with 12 million last year.

By the end of the year, 88 new ships will have begun sailing since 2000, according to Cruise Lines International. But the lines are still trying to figure out where to get the most use out of them.

Baltimore travel agents routinely say they could sell more cruises out of Baltimore, but other lines have left the port.

Baltimore ranked 19th among U.S. ports in 2005 in embarkations, down from 15th in 2004 but ahead of Norfolk and Philadelphia both years, according to an economic report from the association.

It did note that ports such as Norfolk, which didn't rank separately in 2005, were gaining passengers. And Conti said he expects the competition with Baltimore to continue.

"I'm sure Baltimore is arguing to the lines that it is closer to the population centers, but we're closer to where the ships are going," Conti said. "We'll keep trying to claim each other's drive markets."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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