Thursday, June 3, 2010

Competition Heats up for Port

Florida Today

Carnival Cruise Lines' plan to homeport its 2,056-passenger Fantasy at Port Charleston in South Carolina starting this year is causing a few ripples of concern 400 miles to the south in Port Canaveral.

The move is another indication that Port Canaveral, considered the world's second-busiest cruise port, must be prepared for growing pockets of competition in areas where it has traditionally drawn passengers.

Port Charleston, for example, is a six-hour drive from Port Canaveral and there's the distinct possibility that its Carnival service could siphon passengers who might otherwise come here. The Fantasy is expected to attract passengers from the Atlanta area, both Carolinas, Tennessee -- and possibly even North Florida.

"Unfortunately, that's some of our prime markets," said J. Stanley Payne, chief executive officer of Port Canaveral.

And Payne said the competition could grow as more ships are deployed along the East Coast. "I don't think it's going to stop at Charleston."

Fantasy's presence in South Carolina likely will lead to Port Canaveral beefing up its outreach and marketing efforts there touting its cruise offerings, which include seven-day and three- to four-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises offered by Carnival, Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean have invested millions of dollars at Port Canaveral.

Payne didn't specify what additional efforts might be used to market cruises departing from Port Canaveral, saying only that "we're going to get a little more aggressive about the advantages of this port."

Port Canaveral's Central Florida location allows it to attract customers who live within a day's drive of the Space Coast -- more than 30 million people live within an 8-hour drive -- or fly into Orlando International Airport, the 11th largest airport in the United States. According the latest figures, Port Canaveral attracts about 2 million cruise passengers annually.

Even with expected price increases this year, cruises continue to be considered vacation bargains, and that popularity has the attention of many communities eager to sign deals with one of the major players.

Officials in Savannah, Ga., have commissioned a study about the possibility of offering cruises. The Jacksonville Port Authority is considering a new cruise terminal to get more business. Carnival's Fascination sails for five-day cruises out of the Jacksonville port, called Jaxport, but because of the port's design it's difficult now for larger cruise ships to negotiate its waters.

"Definitely home-port cruising is a hot industry trend again," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of the website "What's happening is that smaller markets are getting very aggressive about competing with the big guys, meaning Miami, Fort Lauderdale cruises and Port Canaveral. Charleston is just the newest entrant on the scene and Carnival is just seeing if it's going to work."

One way to tell if a market is good is if the cruise company sends in a bigger ship with more amenities, Brown said. That has happened several times with cruise lines serving Port Canaveral.

Robert Giangrisostomi, the Canaveral Port Authority's deputy executive director/business development, said the port continues to work with travel agents to promote Port Canaveral and its cruise offerings. Cruise ships are running 112 percent to 115 percent passenger capacity, Giangrisostomi said, and the port has to continue to ensure future numbers remain that healthy

The port also is lobbying the cruise lines to offer excursions to Bermuda and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"The key is to keep these (current) cruise ships filled," Giangrisostomi said. "Everybody needs to sell Port Canaveral."