Port launches cruise season

Sun Staff

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

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

Cruise and Maryland officials say interest has not waned locally ornationally this year, although 2005 will be a time of transition as the portof Baltimore readies a new, less cargo-filled home at another public terminalin South Locust Point. A new chief executive hailing from the U.S. cruisecapital 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 theCaribbean, down from a high of about 60 last year. But it's more in line withwhat officials in the industry and in Baltimore expect from a relatively newentry in the cruise business that is not located on the Atlantic.

Baltimore and other ports between New York and Florida - the top two EastCoast states for cruising - became popular after the 2001 terrorist attacksstamped out flying for a time. Baltimore specifically benefited when shipswere diverted from New York to Dundalk and cruise lines discovered that peopleliked it.

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

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

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

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

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

Baltimore ranked in the middle of the pack as the 14th busiest U.S. cruiseport, according to a 2003 survey by the association's sister trade group,International Council of Cruise Lines, using the most recent data. The porthad 57,000 passengers, about the same number that boarded in Boston, SanFrancisco and San Diego. But it had far fewer than ports in Florida, where thetop three ports each topped a million passengers, and New York, where closerto 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 andchief marketing officer for Cruise Lines International. Europe and Alaska alsoare popular. This year, all the Baltimore cruises will head to the Caribbeanor Bermuda.

Attracting new cruise lines along with new destinations has gotten morecompetitive with the growing number of participating North American ports,which now totals 30, according to the association. Most are U.S. ports, andmany 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 toreturn this year. Port officials and the lines said ships were promisedelsewhere.

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

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