It's official: Norwegian Cruise Line will offer its first cruises from Tampa in October 2011.
Word of the ship coming to Tampa spread Monday. Norwegian held a cocktail reception in Tuesday evening for scores of travel agents, local government officials and representatives of the maritime business in downtown Tampa.
The Miami company will bring the 2,240-passenger Norwegian Star to the port for seven-day trips to western Caribbean destinations in Honduras, Belize and Mexico. The 965-foot-long vessel will sail from Tampa through the six-month winter season.
Norwegian pioneered "freestyle cruising,'' which encourages ultra-casual clothing and no set hours for dining. The third-largest U.S. cruise company is also known for aggressive fare discounting.
The 2011-2012 winter schedule "will be one of our most exciting Freestyle Cruising seasons with opportunities to sail from three cities in the Sunshine State,'' said CEO Kevin Sheehan in press release today. Norwegian sails from Miami and begins cruises from Port Canaveral in October.
Two ships, the Carnival Legend and Carnival's Inspiration, now cruise year-round from Tampa. Two others were based at the port last winter: Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas and Holland America's Ryndam.
"We are extremely pleased to partner with Norwegian Cruise Line in bringing their outstanding brand of cruise experience to Tampa,'' said Richard Wainio, Tampa port director. "An additional cruise ship home porting in Tampa means a welcome boost to tourism that will bring significant benefits to the local and regional economy.''
Just over 800,000 cruise passengers sailed from the Port of Tampa for the fiscal year ending last Sept. 30. Like similar agencies, the Tampa Port Authority counts cruise passengers twice — when they board and depart the ship.
With 27 sailings scheduled for the 2011-2012 winter season, the Norwegian Star could bring an additional 114,000 cruise passengers to Tampa annually.
The port should get a boost in the upcoming winter season. Royal Caribbean is replacing the Grandeur of the Seas with the Radiance of the Seas, which is larger and will make nearly twice as many sailings.
That could generate 75,000 more passengers a year. Between the two new ships and modest growth on existing vessels, the port could handle more than 1 million cruise passengers in 2012, said Wainio.
Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes. or (813) 226-3384.