A year ago, Baltimore appeared poised to become a major player as a cruise line departure port. Five major lines -- Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Celebrity and Norwegian -- had scheduled nearly 60 departures for 2004 from the city's Dundalk Marine Terminal. With a nearby international airport, a vibrant tourism scene and large regional population, the city seemed a natural fit as a departure point for cruises to Bermuda, Canada and the Caribbean.
But a year later, only one major line -- Royal Caribbean -- plans to use the port in 2005. Its Grandeur of the Seas will offer 28 cruises with a variety of itineraries from May through October. The other lines, however, have moved their ships from Baltimore to Philadelphia; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Galveston, Tex.; and Tampa, leaving state officials scratching their heads and a coalition of travel business leaders and tourism officials pointing fingers.
All sides agree that the ships did not leave Baltimore because of too few passengers. "The cruise industry as a whole is very happy with Baltimore," said Dennis M. Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. "They had great numbers out of their cruises from Baltimore this year." In fact, Carnival's Miracle was so popular, hundreds of passengers were involuntarily bumped after its cruises were overbooked and fewer people canceled than expected.
So if the lines were making money, why did they pull anchor?
Some state officials view the dearth of ships for 2005 as a short-lived aberration.
"Cruise lines put itineraries together a year in advance, and this year was a trial run," said J.B.. Hanson, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration. "Just because a line isn't here in 2005 doesn't mean it won't be here in 2006 or 2007. We have great expectations we will see the numbers go back up."
But a coalition led by AAA Mid-Atlantic that includes the Maryland Tourism Council, the Baltimore Convention and Visitors Bureau and Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer believes the lack of a dedicated cruise terminal and poor conditions at the pier played a key role.
"Passengers better hope it's not raining," said John White, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "You're dropped off in a gravel lot and then transported by an unmarked shuttle bus to a warehouse with Porta-Potties outside. It's not the level of service you would expect when you pay several thousand dollars for a cruise."
Last month, the coalition sent a letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. urging that his administration move forward on building a new cruise terminal. "Improving basic customer services must be a state priority if we want passengers and the cruise lines to return," the letter said.
Other Eastern Seaboard ports have put big money into new cruise terminals in recent years. Norfolk, for example, is building a $36 million terminal, and Philadelphia's cruise terminal recently underwent a $5.4 million renovation.