It seems strange to celebrate the return of a ship that hasn't left yet, but that's what the recent announcement that the Carnival Pride will be sailing out of Baltimore beginning in March of 2015 amounts to. Last summer, Carnival Cruise Lines announced the ship would begin sailing out of Tampa, Florida beginning this November, and now, like a reliable snow bird, it's planning a return to Northern climes after just a few months in the Sunshine state.
What happened? It's a classic story of commerce versus environmental regulation. New air pollution standards require cruise ships to burn cleaner, more costly low-sulfur diesel fuel near land. Sailing out of Baltimore keeps a vessel in the 200-mile North American Emission Control Area longer than most any other port on the East Coast. As a result, it's more expensive to operate out of Baltimore.
This isn't a Maryland law. It's an international standard that, in the United States, is enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Carnival sought an exemption from the EPA over the fuel standard with a pilot project in which scrubbers attached to a cruise ship's smokestacks would trap pollutants.
That exemption was eventually granted but not before Carnival decided to relocate the Pride to Florida. Apparently, company officials calculated that it made more sense to sidestep stricter clean air requirements than maintain a presence in Maryland and be forced to potentially charge higher ticket prices to pay for more expensive fuel should the exemption not be allowed.
So why return now with a refitted and upgraded Pride? Even with the scrubbers, Carnival could have continued to operate out of Florida or any other U.S. port, any of which no doubt would have loved to have the business. Ah, that's the rub — and where the real lesson of this high sea adventure can be found.
The Maryland Port Administration and its executive director, James J. White, likely deserve some of the credit. They've worked hard to make the Port of Baltimore an attractive cruising option, and they lobbied Carnival, the world's largest cruise ship operator, relentlessly. But even Mr. White's charms likely have their limits.
The fact is, Baltimore has proven to be a moneymaker for Carnival. Cruises based here are convenient, affordable and routinely sell out. But more important, they are more profitable for Carnival because the typical Baltimore passenger has more money to spend onboard than passengers elsewhere, and the extras on a ship — from gambling to liquor to spa visits and souvenirs — are a big profit center in that highly-competitive industry.
The presence of that extra cash is largely because the typical Baltimore cruise passenger merely has to get into the family vehicle and drive here. Spared the expense of a costly airline ticket to Florida, mid-Atlantic cruisers show up at Locust Point with money to burn. That's why we chided the MPA and Gov. Martin O'Malley last summer not to pressure the EPA to relax its rules — Maryland can have it all, clean air and good jobs.
The return of the Pride represents half the estimated $90 million in economic activity and 500 jobs associated with Baltimore's cruise ship industry. (Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas accounts for the other half.) That's great. But so are the estimated 14,000 lives that might be saved annually worldwide beginning in 2020 by the tougher pollution standards.
Meanwhile, the MPA will have to negotiate a new contract with Carnival. Maryland is already committed to upgrade its cruise ship terminal in the near future with a $4 million face-lift featuring such amenities as an electronic billboard, a heated area for passenger pickups, new counters and carpeting. That should be enough to get Carnival to commit to three years in Baltimore.
The port remains one of Baltimore's most important economic engines — despite the occasional labor-management dispute. And the quality of the environment from the water we drink to the air we breathe is even more vital. When both needs are fulfilled — when jobs are gained and the public's health and safety protected — that's a cause to celebrate. Drinks at the Pride's planned Blue Iguana Tequila Bar, anyone?
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