Baltimore will become a year-round cruise port when behemoth Carnival Cruise Lines begins weekly sailings that it expects will handle 115,000 passengers annually, beginning in September 2009.
Miami-based Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise line, said yesterday that the 2,124-passenger Carnival Pride will offer a pair of seven-day itineraries to such destinations as the Turks and Caicos islands, the Bahamas and Florida, through August 2011. It will be the northernmost port where Carnival offers year-round cruises.
State officials hailed Carnival's announcement as a boon to Maryland's cruise industry, which blossomed after the Sept. 11 attacks but has been losing steam since 2004. Carnival as well as Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines had dropped sailings from Baltimore after that peak year.
"We've been chasing them ever since they left in 2004," said James J. White, the Maryland Port Administration's executive director.
"We stay in front of the cruise lines big and small trying to get their economic impact for the state of Maryland," White said. "The cruise lines are finally responding again to the huge population and the high median household income here."
The nearly 60,000 passengers that took cruises from Baltimore in 2006 generated $56 million in economic impact for the state, the port administration estimated.
After more than a year of hard negotiating, Carnival agreed to launch weekly cruises from Baltimore in exchange for enhancements the state pledged to make to its $13 million South Locust Point passenger terminal, a converted paper shed that opened in 2006, White said. A bad-weather metal canopy is to be built between the parking lot and terminal, he said.
When Baltimore again has three cruise lines in 2009, the 60,000-square-foot South Locust Point terminal will likely need to be expanded, he said.
After a four-year hiatus, Norwegian returns to Baltimore on June 21 with the launch of 11 seven-night cruises to Bermuda. Royal Caribbean International, the port's only operator last year, cut its 2008 Baltimore sailings to 16, half of what it had in 2007.
As airlines cut capacity and raise fares because of sky-high fuel prices, Baltimore became more attractive to Carnival given the 40 million people that live within a six-hour drive from the city, Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz said.
Carnival and other cruise lines have looked to smaller, regional ports outside Florida, New York and the West Coast as booking air travel has become more expensive.
" 'Homeporting' has increased the penetration of the local market as the passenger's ability to drive to the ship versus fly increases the value offering of cruising," UBS leisure travel analyst Robin M. Farley wrote in a recent annual outlook report on the cruise industry.
"We have had tremendous success establishing home port locations from a wide variety of locations in North America," De La Cruz said, mentioning nontraditional Carnival cruise ports in Jacksonville, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; and New Orleans. "There's a huge population base within a day's drive from Baltimore."
Bringing a new $500 million ship into service in Long Beach, Calif., will free up the Carnival Pride to come to Baltimore, so no existing routes will be slashed, she added.
The expansion comes as the cruise industry is still growing but at a slower rate. Worldwide, 12.8 million people are expected to take cruises this year, compared with an estimated 12.6 million in 2007, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry trade group.
Baltimore has annually had just under 30 cruise departures since 2005. But with Carnival's announcement, the port administration looks forward to 54 departures in 2009, up from the 27 scheduled for this year, White said.
"Our facility as well as the parking available will be challenged if we grow this business any further," White added.