Ocean cruises from Baltimore?


Only 17 ocean-going cruise ships called on Baltimore last year. Yet the Maryland Port Authority thinks the city has a serious future in the cruise business. The only thing lacking, officials figure, is an in-town terminal.

Maryland transportation officials are now inching toward building one. They are reportedly negotiating to buy a 3.5-acre parcel near Caroline and Thames streets in Fells Point for a terminal estimated to cost $50 million.

The thinking is that Baltimore could easily increase the number of ocean-going cruise liners that call here, especially if even one major cruise operator could be persuaded to use Baltimore as its home port.

Some compelling economic arguments support these plans. America's cruise industry has been thriving in recent years, with an estimated five million people taking a ship-board vacation this year. The Cruise Lines' International Association is projecting an annual growth rate of about 10 percent in the future.

The dollar benefits can be staggering.

Consultants estimate that just 10 Bermuda cruises and two Canadian cruises could net the state some $4.4 million a year in revenue, while bringing in $772,000 for the city. If 30 Bermuda cruises and four Canadian cruises originated from Baltimore, state revenues could soar to $12.3 million and city revenues to $2.1 million. And so on.

Is this mere day-dreaming? It better not be.

The demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the Baltimore-Washington market suggest that the region could easily support regular ocean-going cruises. Such cruises would not only give a healthy boost to the downtown hospitality industry but could benefit a wide variety of ancillary businesses, if the ships would purchase their provisions locally.

The state's consultants have been looking at two potential locations in the Inner Harbor. The preferred site is in Fells Point, although an alternative near the HarborView condominium complex in Federal Hill is also under consideration. In each case, some dredging of the channel would be necessary to accommodate large ships.

The Maryland Department of Transportation has allocated $12 million in its draft capital budget toward the $50 million cost of a terminal. It hopes to get additional funds from the city and then team up with one or more cruise lines to make the project possible.

Considering the potential pay-off, this is one gamble that should be pursued aggressively.

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