Familiar waters: Cruises thrive close to home

The very word sounds exotic: cruise. From it rise images of distant, pristine utopias: Greek islands of mythic beauty, Caribbean beaches lapped by clear blue water, icebound Scandinavian fjords.

To that, add the following: Baltimore, Houston, and Mobile, Ala. – all new destinations for 2002.

Increasingly, cruise ships are coming home. Fed by the industry's enormous success, as well as Americans' post-Sept. 11 desire to stay closer to home, more ships than ever are calling on American ports.

From San Francisco to Tampa, Fla., cities are scrambling to build new terminals, as rival ports welcome luxury liners for the first time in years. It's one bright spot for a tourist industry that has slumped recently. And it's a bright spot, too, for often-overlooked towns, which are getting new exposure – and lots of new cash.

"The whole issue of Sept. 11 amplified and accelerated the process," says Bob Sharak of the Cruise Lines International Association in New York. "It provided an opportunity to deploy additional [ships] in places that don't normally have them."

Bait for boats in old – and new – port cities

Monterey, Calif., is one of those places. At first glance, this seems the perfect place for cruise-boat captains to dump their jaunty keep of sunbathers and shuffleboarders. With its creaking red timbers, Fisherman's Wharf resembles a human-size lobster trap, baited for tourists with sugary-smelling waffle cones and oceans of kitsch.

There's the aquarium, the Steinbeck Museum, and perhaps the most breathtaking 18 holes of golf anywhere in the world, at Pebble Beach. But since the mid-1990s, no cruise ships have stopped here.

This year, three ships will glide into port.

Down Alvarado Street, past old theater marquees and new juice bars, the Carmel Creamery Co. hopes to snare visitors who wander from the waterfront. "I'm happy they're coming," says director Terri Neece. "I hope it brings in a lot of business."

In many places, it already has. City officials in Galveston, Texas, estimate that the cruise industry will bring in $60 million for the city this year, and $120 million in 2003.

"It definitely helps," says Melissa Malone of the Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau, "and it's given our town a new profile: We're a port city."

More than a wave of interest?

The trend is apparent up and down America's coasts. Even before Sept. 11, cruise lines were looking for new destinations.

During the past four years, the industry has sought to meet record-breaking demand by adding 40 new ships. But those ships need different destinations, and so companies were testing American markets to give travelers an option closer to home. Now, the trend is in full effect.

Many of these ships, analysts say, will return to far-off destinations when the war on terror cools. But how cruise lines fare this year might go a long way toward determining how many ships linger on American coasts.

"The big question is whether they'll stay long-term," says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week News in Wilmington, N.C. "Whether it continues will depend on whether it's successful."

Ports of importance

Already, there are signs of demand. Carnival added five more cruises out of Mobile, because its first two cruises to Mexico sold out so quickly. Nationwide, the industry is on track to break its yearly record for passengers.

Attempting to cash in, Tampa is already building new cruise ship terminals to lure more liners. San Francisco and Baltimore have also chosen sites and are considering proposals, with similar goals in mind.

Their success floats on a bill before the Senate. It would amend a 136-year-old law decreeing that all the ships in the current cruise fleet make at least one stop in a foreign country – ruling out potentially popular cruises such as San Francisco to Hawaii, or Boston to Miami.

Before issues of terrorism engulfed the congressional agenda, experts suggested that the bill had a good chance of passing.

But even without the Senate bill, the swell of new ships suggests American ports are gaining importance. "The operators don't want to put all the new ships in one place," says Mr. Sharak. "They want to introduce new people to new markets."

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