Still smarting from news that half of Baltimore's lucrative cruise business is headed south next year, the state's ports chief said Friday that officials are already working on replacing the Carnival Pride.
Carnival Cruise Lines announced Thursday that the Pride's weekly cruises from Baltimore to the Bahamas and Caribbean will end in November 2014, when the 2,124-passenger ship will transfer to Tampa, Fla. Officials of the Miami-based company said pending federal requirements to reduce air pollution on all ships in coastal waters prompted their decision.
"It was unexpected, but it wasn't a shock to us," said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "I'm not taking this lightly. This hurts. This is going to be tough for us."
White said he believes Carnival will return by late spring 2015 and that parent Carnival Corp. will have resolved its issues by then with the Environmental Protection Agency over how to curb pollution from its fleet of ships. Currently, the Pride is scheduled to cruise from Tampa through March 2015, Carnival announced.
But, White said, the cruise business is too valuable to Baltimore's economy to count on Carnival's return.
"We're talking to a lot of cruise lines," he said. "You've got to get a hook in the water. … Although we're very married to Carnival Cruise Line, we're going to work as hard as we can to get somebody to fill that slot."
Tourism industry officials said Carnival's departure will put a hole in their business.
"It's disappointing to hear about the loss of Carnival, as they were a great partner and tourism asset for Baltimore," said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore.
But, Noonan added, the city's location along Interstate 95 makes this a good port for ships to use.
Since 2009, Baltimore has hosted two year-round cruise ships, the Carnival Pride and a Royal Caribbean vessel, currently Grandeur of the Seas, which sails to Bermuda, the Bahamas and Caribbean.
Together, the two cruise ships carry more than 400,000 passengers annually, support 220 jobs and pump more than $90 million into the area's economy, according to a 2011 consultants' study done for the port administration. Each ship "homeported" in Baltimore spends about $500,000 per call on such things as bunker fuel, water removal, security and stevedoring, according to the analysis done by Martin Associates of Lancaster, Pa.
Nearly 40 percent of those who sail out of Baltimore are Marylanders, and the majority come to the port by car. About a quarter spend a night in the city before sailing, spending $80 per person on average. The ships' crews also stoke the economy, the report found, spending upwards of $200 each on electronics, clothing, food and drink during their three- to four-hour shore leaves between cruises.
"Over the years, we've seen the port of Baltimore grow into a rather bustling port for cruise ships, popular among cruisers for its convenience and value," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com. "Our members who frequently cruise out of Baltimore are disappointed to hear the news, but are optimistic about the possibility of another line coming in to fill the void and join Royal Caribbean in offering year-round sailings from the port."
"It's unfortunate," agreed Ragina Cooper Averella, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which operates a travel agency. "Having two cruise ships gave Marylanders and others in the region another option, another itinerary with different ports of call. People didn't have to worry about packing to fly to Florida to debark. They were able to pack what they wanted, drive to the terminal, park and get on. Hopefully, they'll reconsider or the port will find another cruise line to step in."
White said port officials had known for months that Carnival and other cruise lines were concerned about the impact on their operations of a pending federal requirement that ships burn cleaner fuel within 200 nautical miles of the coast, starting in 2015. Still, he said, the state hoped the Maryland cruise market's strength would prove too valuable to abandon.
"They were telling us everything was great," White said. "They were sailing full, the on-board spending was excellent. We had no reason to think we were going to lose the ship. But once they started to calculate the additional mileage coming up the bay — 300 miles round trip — it became purely a cost issue."
Cruise and cargo vessels now burn a relatively inexpensive, low-grade fuel called "bunker." Without any pollution controls on their engines, those ships collectively produce large amounts of health-threatening particles and smog-forming pollution that waft over land, the EPA determined. Federal regulators say burning fuel with 90 percent less sulfur in it, as will be required in January 2015, could prevent as many as 14,000 premature deaths nationwide by 2020.
For months, though, cruise lines have warned that the extra costs associated with burning cleaner fuel may force cutbacks in voyages from some ports.
Carnival, which operates several cruise lines, told the EPA that instead of switching to cleaner but more costly fuel, it wanted to put pollution "scrubbers" on 59 of its ships over the next 31/2 years, an investment the company put at $200 million, according to Maryland port officials, whom the company briefed.
The EPA has granted a few temporary deferrals from the clean-fuel mandate for ship owners to try alternative pollution-control technology, including scrubbers.
Neither Carnival nor the EPA would discuss their talks, including how long a deferral or for how many ships Carnival has been seeking.
White said the looming added cost of cruising from Baltimore, and uncertainty about whether the EPA would approve its scrubber plan, prompted Carnival to relocate the Pride. Port officials said the higher-priced clean fuel could raise costs by as much as $140 per passenger per cruise.
Environmentalists called Carnival's decision to pull ships from the East Coast a ploy apparently intended to pressure the EPA to approve its pollution control plan.
"I'm frankly surprised they would do something that drastic," said Marcie Keever, who tracks cruise ship environmental performance for Friends of the Earth. "To a certain extent these ships get rerouted all the time. To me, it seems more of a publicity stunt than a money-saving measure."
Carnival Glory, now based in Norfolk and, seasonally, Boston and New York, will sail year-round from Miami starting this November. The cruise line announced earlier this year that Carnival Splendor will cruise year-round out of New York.
Cruise experts say that, as the world's largest cruise line, Carnival can afford to be tough in bargaining while still leaving room to be wooed. In January, the company announced that it was dropping 10 calls this year to Belize City, because local officials had allowed the port to become too congested, industry observers say. It switched Carnival Glory and Carnival Legend to Mexico's Costa Maya along the Yucatan Peninsula — but only through the end of the year.
White said he thinks Carnival's abandonment of Baltimore is only temporary, for similar reasons.
"We fully expect that we can get Carnival back because we honestly feel that the Florida market is going to be glutted with ships," he said.
In March, before the pollution issue peaked, CrusieCritic's Brown told The Sun that Baltimore might be able to attract a third cruise line, suggesting Holland America or Princess, both owned by Carnival.
"It's clear that Baltimore-area cruisers are still passionate about the port and eager to see it continue to grow," she said.
The port's marketing staff, which had been scouting for a third cruise line for Baltimore, has been wooing in earnest for the past month, once Carnival signaled it might leave Baltimore, White said.
"Two ships a week. That's our goal," he said. "Between Washington and Philadelphia, we're a region with 14 million people. … I like those odds."
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