Close to 2,000 people filed up a ramp from a converted cargo shed to the Grandeur of the Seas yesterday, the initial crop of passengers on the first cruise ship of the season in Baltimore.

Having found steady interest since 2001, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. was the only line to return a ship to the state-owned industrial waterfront in Dundalk.

Cruise and Maryland officials say interest has not waned locally or nationally this year, although 2005 will be a time of transition as the port of Baltimore readies a new, less cargo-filled home at another public terminal in South Locust Point. A new chief executive hailing from the U.S. cruise capital of Miami also moves this year to take the port's helm.

There will be 28 cruises lasting five to nine nights to Bermuda and the Caribbean, down from a high of about 60 last year. But it's more in line with what officials in the industry and in Baltimore expect from a relatively new entry in the cruise business that is not located on the Atlantic.

Baltimore and other ports between New York and Florida - the top two East Coast states for cruising - became popular after the 2001 terrorist attacks stamped out flying for a time. Baltimore specifically benefited when ships were diverted from New York to Dundalk and cruise lines discovered that people liked it.

"We're considered a drive-to port," said Lisa Ellis Marr, manager of cruise market development for the Maryland Port Administration.

"People like the fact that they can get into their car in New Jersey, drive here, park their car, get on a ship and go on vacation. And that's why the new homeland cruise ports have come up throughout the country, not just in Baltimore," she said. "We're close to about 36 million people and make it easy for them to drive and park adjacent to the building."

Even if the passengers do not stay the night in Baltimore, eat in a restaurant or see a sight - which some choose to do - they help the local economy when they buy gas and pay highway and tunnel tolls, Marr noted. They also may see something that makes them come back on another vacation.

The state, which owns the Dundalk and Locust Point docks, decided that investing heavily in a new, more posh terminal would be too big an investment for such a nascent business. Consultants have warned Baltimore officials that the business isn't likely to grow to the proportion of the most popular cruise ports.

There is room to grow, however. More people than ever are cruising, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. A record 10.5 million people took a cruise in 2004, up almost 11 percent, and the group predicts about 11 million will cruise this year.

Baltimore ranked in the middle of the pack as the 14th busiest U.S. cruise port, according to a 2003 survey by the association's sister trade group, International Council of Cruise Lines, using the most recent data. The port had 57,000 passengers, about the same number that boarded in Boston, San Francisco and San Diego. But it had far fewer than ports in Florida, where the top three ports each topped a million passengers, and New York, where closer to a half-million people boarded.

The Caribbean remains a popular destination, with about half of all U.S. cruises headed there, according to Robert Sharak, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Cruise Lines International. Europe and Alaska also are popular. This year, all the Baltimore cruises will head to the Caribbean or Bermuda.

Attracting new cruise lines along with new destinations has gotten more competitive with the growing number of participating North American ports, which now totals 30, according to the association. Most are U.S. ports, and many had been around for years but not used much for cruising before 2001.

Royal Caribbean is the only one of five lines that have served Baltimore to return this year. Port officials and the lines said ships were promised elsewhere.

Many of the new drive-to ports should benefit because cruise lines can use them to draw cost-conscious people. Those ports don't require flights, hotel stays or extra days of travel. "Consumers are responding well to this focus on cost savings and convenience," Sharak said.