Port finds niche: 5 more cruises to start here; As cruise lines build ever bigger liners, they send smaller ships here


The Maryland Port Administration is expected to announce an agreement today that will bring five cruises of the SS Rembrandt to the port of Baltimore next summer -- helping boost total sailings to 18 for 2000, well ahead of the dozen that had been projected.

Under the agreement, Didion World Cruises of Washington will charter the 1,100-passenger liner in July from Premier Cruise Lines.

"I've been pitching Baltimore for a long time," said Harriett Sagel, manager of tourism development for the Maryland Port Administration. "You have to crawl before you walk. We're now at the point where all the information I've been pitching about Baltimore has been helping."

The cruises will include: a three-night cruise to nowhere; an eight-night trip to New England and Canada; a six-night trip to Nassau in the Bahamas; a two-night voyage to nowhere; and a seven-night cruise to the Bahamas and the Southeastern United States.

Other cruises slated for next year are seven on the Dynasty, operated by Crown Cruises, and two on the Rotterdam, operated by the Holland America line, Sagel said.

There also will be four port calls by cruise ships, allowing passengers to disembark for a variety of tours.

Baltimore is to play host to seven cruise ships this year, up from five in each of the two previous years. Recent changes in the industry have helped bring Baltimore the additional cruises for 2000, Sagel said.

As the cruise lines build new vessels that hold more than 2,000 passengers, they send those newer, larger ships on their more popular routes, making the older, smaller vessels available for use in places like Baltimore, she said.

"When I can tell them about the attractions in Baltimore, the airlift and the roadways, they're very pleased," Sagel said. "These are lines that might have gone elsewhere. How many port cities along the East Coast can say they have the airlift that Baltimore has or the infrastructure?"

Overall, ship cruises are the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. In 1970, an estimated 500,000 people took cruises, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. In 1997, that number had increased to an estimated 5 million passengers, generating an estimated annual revenue of $14.6 billion.

In 2000, the association estimates as many as 7 million people will take a cruise.

And that burgeoning interest has created a market for specialty tours and weekend cruises, a niche that ports like Baltimore can fill.

Already, Baltimore offers tours of the Chesapeake Bay, to nearby states and to Canada's Maritime Provinces.

It is the kind of growth in business that travel agents like Lynda P. Maxwell, president of Destinations Inc. in Columbia, have been longing for.

"This means big money for downtown," she said.

Port officials do not expect Baltimore to be a major port of embarkation for cruise ships. The city's location on the cold mid-Atlantic, along with the expensive and time-consuming journey up the Chesapeake Bay, limit the port's potential cruise business.

The port's distance from the popular Caribbean destinations puts it at a disadvantage in competing with U.S. ports that are closer.

One of the most popular cruises is to Bermuda, largely because the warm-weather foreign port is only a 36-hour sail from the Chesapeake Bay.

The additional cruises now on the books are expected to have a significant economic impact on the region -- although just how significant was unclear yesterday.

The last economic impact study was done in 1992, Sagel said. A copy of that study was not immediately available yesterday, and a new economic impact study is in the works, Sagel said.

Additional business may come to the port as other cruise lines look for places to send their older ships.

"They're looking at Baltimore," Sagel said. "They know we can fill ships. We've done it in the past."

Pub Date: 10/07/99

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