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.
While most cruise line spokesmen indicate that they would like a nicer cruise terminal, almost all agree that it is not the overriding factor in deciding departure port locations.
James Haller, director of deployment and itinerary planning for Royal Caribbean, the only cruise line to sign the letter to Ehrlich, said in an e-mail that Baltimore "is a great market . . . with a very cooperative port." He added: "We would like to see improvements in the infrastructure, but we are working from a long-term perspective and have been pleased with the success of our operations from Baltimore to date and have strong expectations for our Caribbean and Bermuda sailings in 2005."
Several cruise spokesmen said they were only experimenting with Baltimore last year and never had plans to continue the service in 2005. Most said they had a good experience in Baltimore and may return when they have a new ship to spare.
Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said the line always intended to change its schedules in 2005. "We had a new ship, the Miracle, which allowed us to try a variety of one-time experimental programs, including cruising from Baltimore," she said. "It was a port we wanted to try out. It was very successful. At some point we will likely be back in Baltimore. But our itineraries for 2005 were set a couple of years in advance." The Carnival Miracle will now sail out of Tampa.
Heather Krasnow, spokeswoman for Norwegian Cruise Line, said, "Our decision to move doesn't have anything to do with the port facilities. We don't home-port a lot of our ships year-round. We decided to do a longer season out of Philadelphia. But that's not to say we won't go back to Baltimore."
Elizabeth Jakeway, spokeswoman for Celebrity, sister company to Royal Caribbean, said, "We've enjoyed several good seasons there, but we have found a great opportunity to cruise from Galveston offering us a new geographic region and the opportunity to expand our popular Panama Canal cruises."
Holland America spokesman Erik Elvejord said in an e-mail that, while the Rotterdam did several cruises out of Baltimore and Philadelphia in 2004, it was a trial run "looking at the potential for the future." Cruises from Baltimore went well, Elvejord said, and, when new ships are added to the line in 2006, the line will determine whether it makes sense to return.
White and other coalition members say it will be easier to woo the cruise lines back to Baltimore if better cruise pier facilities are built. "There's a new cruise terminal in Norfolk and one in Bayonne [N.J.]," he said. "Where are you going to go if you have a choice? We don't want to be the odd man out."
But it remains unclear whether the state will put up the money, especially in the current budget cycle. Castleman said it is attempting to locate a site for a new terminal and to identify funding sources.
"We've studied this issue for decades," White said. "We want them to include money in the budget and to move forward."