With more competitors, Port of Miami seeks new ways to launch cruise traffic
Though cruise passenger traffic continues growing at the Port of Miami, the seaport is approaching a ceiling on its busiest days as its market share of cruise passengers annually decreases even as it sets performance records.
Whereas 75% of all US cruise passengers once passed through Miami, said Khalid A. Salahuddin, deputy port director, that share is now more like 33% - though he says that the port retains its own self-declared title as cruise capital of the world.
In fiscal 2002, 3,642,900 passengers passed through the port - up 7.4% from the prior year in figures that count passengers when they board and again when they leave the ship. This fiscal year, Mr. Salahuddin is forecasting a 6% to 8% annual passenger growth.
November, the most recent month for which figures were available, cruise ship passengers increased 14.8% to 352,920. October was up 18.4% at 240,879, but the comparison is against a tourism world that in 2001 had just been shattered by terrorist attacks.
"Miami is approaching capacity on the preferred days, Saturday and Sunday. In March there will be a day with eight mega-ships in the Port of Miami," Mr. Salahuddin said, with nearly 19,000 persons debarking and then 19,000 others boarding the ships. "That's a tremendous amount of people that are going to be going through the port in one day."
"No other ports handle eight mega-ships in one day," said Trenae V. Floyd, the port's public affairs officer. Miami will do so March 8, a Saturday.
But as the nature of the industry has changed post-9/11, with cruise lines seeking passengers within driving distance rather than the fly-in market that is Miami's bread and butter, new competitors to the Port of Miami have grown stronger, said Hydi Webb, the port's cruise development manager. Houston, New Orleans and Philadelphia are now home ports, she said. "Our competition is definitely spreading out."
So port officials said they were neither surprised nor dismayed by a listing released Monday by the Cruise Lines International Association showing that of 14 new cruise liners and three relaunched ships coming on line in the next 12 months or so, only one will be based at the Port of Miami - and that ship will be based here only part of the year.
The new 2,224-passenger Norwegian Dawn arrived in the port a few weeks ago, Ms. Webb said, sailing from Miami to the Caribbean now but in April scheduled to move to New York for the season and just visit here.
"It will be the Port of Miami's first port-of-call vessel," Ms. Webb said, and then be home-ported here during the busy winter season.
Miami's two mammoth hometown cruise lines, Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International, both plan new ships next year - but they won't be based here.
Carnival's 1,080-passenger Serenity is to set sail in July with an inaugural season tour of northern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Baltic, a transatlantic crossing, Caribbean and Panama Canal ports of call and a holiday roundtrip cruise to Mexico from Los Angeles.
Royal Caribbean is to debut its Serenade of the Seas in November but has yet to announce a home port or cruising plans. On Jan. 17, 2004, it's to debut its 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas in a cruise from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The other new vessels are spread among 10 other cruise lines. They include Cunard's Queen Mary 2, billed as both the longest and tallest cruise ship in the world. It is to begin a series of transatlantic crossings in 2004 with a capacity of 2,620 passengers.
Despite the deployment of vessels elsewhere, Mr. Salahuddin says the Port of Miami's cruise traffic "is definitely on the upswing," and the seaport has several strategies to continue its growth of passengers in the face of the spreading competition.
On one hand, said Mr. Salahuddin, it is working to even out cruise traffic, historically bunched on weekends, where capacity is strained. Cruise lines, he said, are now more willing to schedule in off-peak periods.
For example, he said, Carnival is bringing more ships into the port during the off-peak period. Instead of the traditional cruise lengths of three, four or seven days from the port, he said, Carnival is cruising in eight-, 10- and 11-day timeframes that don't both arrive and depart weekends.
He forecast that the off-peak use will continue to grow, using mid-week time when terminals often sit idle.
For example, he said, on a recent Monday six cruise ships were at the port - days they'd be out to sea on the traditional schedules.
Growth will also come with added ability to handle more ships and more people. The port has plans on the boards to build two mega-terminals within a year and expand other berths to accommodate more mega-ships, Mr. Salahuddin said. "They are pegged to accommodate mega-ships," those with capacity of 2,500 or more passengers.
The port also plans to open one multi-story garage that could accommodate an additional 750 to 1,200 users next month, another by summer and then a third, he said.
Another growth mechanism won't count on the port's passenger figures but will help its bottom line and drive business in the community.
The port, Mr. Salahuddin said, is now courting day cruises and cruises to nowhere, a class of cruising more popular in Florida ports north of Miami, where demographics seem to favor one-day trips. In fact, Miami no longer has a day cruise line, though it did in the past.
The cruise industry globally does not count day-trip passengers in its total figures, so the port could expand its business with one-day weekday trips even though its official passenger counts wouldn't rise.
In the face of the port's growth plans, there seems to be no concern that the home-based cruise lines are deploying their new ships elsewhere.
"Part of the reason," Mr. Salahuddin said, "is that, for example, Royal Caribbean has four voyager class ships on the high seas now (their mega-ships) and three of them come to the Port of Miami. And Carnival has been bringing their largest and fastest ships here."