After years of pursuit, the agency that runs Tampa's port is expected to announce today that it has landed the third-largest U.S. cruise line.
Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line will bring the Norwegian Star to Tampa for seven-day western Caribbean cruises from the port for the 2011-2012 winter season.
Norwegian releases its schedule for the season this morning and will host a cocktail reception in the evening for scores of travel agents, local government officials and representatives of the maritime business in downtown Tampa.
"We are unable to release any information prior to that announcement,'' spokeswoman Courtney Recht wrote in response to questions. Tampa Port Authority officials "expect a significant announcement,'' the agency said in a message to news organizations.
But word was already out Monday.
"Obviously, they're coming to Tampa,'' said Vicky Evans, senior travel agent for AAA Travel in the Tampa Bay area. "It's been rumored for four to six months. We just didn't know when or which ship.''
With room for 2,240 passengers, the 965-foot-long Norwegian Star will edge out the Carnival Legend as the biggest cruise ship at the port.
Port officials tried for years to woo Norwegian, No. 3 behind much larger Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean, to make Tampa a home port. Carnival bases two ships at the port, while Royal Caribbean and Holland America have one each.
Cruise passenger traffic at the port peaked at nearly 911,000 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2006. Numbers fell off as the economy soured but rebounded to 803,000 in the last fiscal year.
Tampa could surpass 1-million passengers for the first time with the Norwegian Star and a larger Caribbean ship, the Grandeur of the Sea, that recently began winter cruises here. Like similar agencies, the port authority counts passengers twice — when they board and get off the ship.
"This will give a greater choice of vacation options to Tampa Bay residents,'' said Evans, who oversees 15 AAA agencies. "With more ships, we can provide more value. Prices will probably go down.''
Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) pioneered "freestyle cruising,'' a more casual style that thumbs its nose at stuffy cruising traditions.
"Decor is colorful, fun and occasionally loud, especially on newer ships,'' says a profile of NCL by Cruise Critic, an online review site. "The dress code is flexible and very casual. It's not unusual to see T-shirt clad passengers among their more dressed up shipmates (Tuxedos are rare).''
NCL also has a reputation as a fierce discounter. The line has offered $99 kids' fares and cruises as cheap as $25 a night before taxes, says Cruise Critic.
The company was founded in 1966 as Norwegian Caribbean Line with a single cruise ferry offering bargain trips out of Miami. Privately owned NCL now operates a dozen vessels sailing from more than 10 ports in the United States and Canada.
NCL's biggest and newest vessel, the 153,000-ton, 4,200-passenger Norwegian Epic, will be the biggest cruise ship — in terms of passenger capacity — in the Caribbean during its first season sailing from Miami this summer, according to Cruise Critic.
The Norwegian Star, no small fry at 91,000 tons, sails from Vancouver and Seattle to Alaska in the summer and to Mexico's west coast from Los Angeles for winter.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com of (813) 226-3384.