TAMPA — Tampa's cruise business is getting an upgrade.
The 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Seas is only slightly larger than Royal Caribbean's current winter/spring season vessel, the Grandeur of the Seas, and will sail the same four- and five-day cruises to Mexican resorts.
But the Radiance will stay for an extended season, operating 44 cruises from early October through April — 16 more than the Grandeur. That could mean 40,000 more visitors in Tampa, the nation's eighth-largest cruise port with 382,000 passengers last year.
"It's exciting to see a strong and growing cruise market here in Tampa," said port director Richard Wainio. "Royal Caribbean's decision to enhance activity at the Port of Tampa is a great and fitting response."
The move is part of a push to bring more modern, stylish ships to domestic ports, said Royal Caribbean spokesman Harrison Liu. Launched in 2001, the Radiance was the first in a class with 10-story glass walls framing a center atrium.
"It's a much better product to distinguish ourselves from the competition," Liu said. "It's part of a strategy to bring more and better cruises to local, convenient ports."
Cruise passengers typically are in a rush to get on and off ships, says Guy Revelle, a partner in Splitsville, Stumps Supper Club and other venues at the Channelside entertainment complex at the port. They make up only 5 to 10 percent of his business.
But some cruisers come back later for sports events or vacations, he said. Revelle is talking with downtown boosters about offering package deals so passengers come to Tampa early.
"Overall, Tampa benefits hugely from the cruise business,'' he said.
The Grandeur was relocated to Tampa in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated its home port of New Orleans. That gave the local port six cruise ships during a single season for the first time ever and a record 457,000 passengers in 2006.
The port's numbers plunged the following year after Royal Caribbean moved its other Tampa-based ship, the Legend of the Seas, to another port.
The Radiance will debut here with a seven-night cruise around the Western Caribbean, then settle into a routine of four-day cruises to Cozumel and five-day cruises that also stop in Costa Maya, Mexico.
This fall, Holland America Line will bring a new ship to Tampa. The Ryndam is a little smaller and a couple of years older than its predecessor, the Veendam. But Holland America gave the 1,270-passenger vessel an extensive makeover of staterooms and public areas.
Tampa also is home port to two Carnival Cruise Lines ships, the Inspiration and Carnival Legend, which sail year-round.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.