Baltimore makes a cruising comeback


April 12, 2023

Dear Subscriber,

Please note the editorial that posted today in the Baltimore Sun:


Baltimore makes a cruising comeback

Compared to its 317-year history as a major U.S. shipping port, Baltimore’s two decades or so experience as a place to board a modern cruise ship still seems novel. It can be traced to 9/11 and the sudden need to find alternative East Coast ports after the attack on New York.

But the business has grown steadily over the years as Baltimore proved itself a convenient, affordable option in the populated Mid-Atlantic market, buoyed by the opening in 2006 of the passenger terminal at what was once the site of a paper warehouse.

But then another disaster hit three years ago: The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the cruise industry, and the once-bustling single cruise ship berth in South Baltimore became a (mostly) empty parking space. After welcoming 224,568 passengers in 2019, the cruise terminal off East McComas Street, near the Interstate 95 exit for Key Highway, saw just 25,031 customers in 2021, or 11% of its usual volume.

Did this mark the end of Baltimore as a launching point for cruisers?  No, as it turns out, it did not.

Earlier this year, Norwegian Cruise Lines announced it was coming to Charm City. Beginning in September, it will bring two ships to Baltimore, the Sky and the Sun, and begin offering round-trip 5-day and 12-day cruises to Bermuda and the Caribbean to the south and Canada and New England to the north. And that’s on top of the rebound by existing cruise operators, Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Group.

Last year, Baltimore saw 196,084 cruise passengers even as federal regulations continued to limit to 70% capacity through the first quarter.

Given Baltimore has just a single berth, this is a remarkable revival — and further evidence that the advantages offered by Charm City’s location are not to be taken lightly. They include proximity to the District of Columbia; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware, and beyond, along with the convenience of I-95 access and having the bustling Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport just 10 miles away.

Indeed, a survey done for the Maryland Port Administration found that Baltimore cruise passengers are willing to come from some distance: 31% from Maryland and D.C., 26% from Pennsylvania and Delaware.

But here’s where it gets surprising: 18% from Virginia and North Carolina, 13% from New York and New Jersey, and 7% from Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Michigan. 

What’s more, MPA officials estimate that cruising out of the Port of Baltimore generates almost 400 jobs and $63 million in local business revenue each year, not to mention $3 million in state and local taxes.

After all, it’s common for cruise passengers to, before or after their trips, stay in nearby hotels, where they can presumably be steered toward local attractions from Fort McHenry to the Baltimore Museum of Art, concerts and ballgames and so on.

How far might it grow beyond the current 100 or so trips per year? Right now, the limit is at no more than one ship per day because of the single berth, but William P. Doyle, the MPA’s executive director, is open to the possibility of future expansion — at least when the industry has shaken off its post-COVID jitters.

That’s a welcome reminder that the Port of Baltimore remains one of the region’s most valuable economic assets but also an evolving one. And so, added to the list of public investments being made today and in the years ahead to accommodate port traffic (like renovating rail tunnels or expanded warehouse space or better cranes) should be a welcome mat for out-of-town cruisers.

The day may soon arrive when a second cruise line berth and plentiful parking for cars could be as important for generating jobs as dredging the Chesapeake Bay shipping channel. Well, in the ballpark, anyway.

Of course, it would also help if Baltimore could improve its reputation as a family-friendly destination, which may be a challenge given the continuing plague of gun violence. There’s no indication the homicide count has much impact on the isolated and secured cruise terminal, but perceptions matter.

As the MPA notes, more than 40 million Americans live within a six-hour drive of Baltimore. Tourism is already a top-10 employer in Maryland. And there is clearly potential for more, as the “Sky” (and the Norwegian “Sun”) are not the limit.