Just three months after pledging to return to Tampa's port, operators of a seasonal ferry to Mexico have canceled its schedule of cruises that were to start in November.
The Yucatan Express lost about $5-million during the inaugural season that ended in April. Executives said at the time they were committed to building the business and would bring the ship back to Tampa this fall for another five months from its summer home in Maine.
But on Tuesday, company officials said problems with one of two ports the ship was expected to use on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula forced them to postpone sailing from Tampa again until November 2004.
The Port of Morelos, south of Cancun, has not agreed to dredge a shipping channel that's too shallow and too narrow, said spokesman Mark Hudson. That means the ship could make only one weekly roundtrip to the Yucatan instead of two _ not enough to make money, he said.
"Is this the ideal way to do it? No," said Hudson. "But we want to get it right, and if that means we have to delay the service for a year, we have to do that."
The company hasn't sold any tickets for the upcoming season, he said.
But travel wholesaler Scand-America International of Tarpon Springs received prices for next season from Yucatan Express and on July 4 signed a contract worth nearly $2-million to provide cabins to a major tour operator, said president Ivar Fiskaa.
He questioned whether the cruise company can make a successful return to Tampa. "When somebody says they're coming back (and doesn't) it could be tough to make a good comeback," said Fiskaa.
Officials at the port and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce had touted the ferry service as a sign of big things for trade with Mexico across the Gulf of Mexico.
According to the port, the Yucatan Express was the only cruise ferry between Mexico and the United States, carrying vehicles and freight below decks. It was a vacation unfamiliar to most travelers: a 36-hour ride each way on a smaller and more modest vessel than today's glitzy cruise ships.
Business started slowly, with as few as 37 passengers in the ferry's 322 cabins on an early cruise. The ship initially made twice-weekly trips between Tampa and the Yucatan, one each to Progreso and Morelos.
But in January the Yucatan Express had to drop Morelos because navigating the channel became too risky. That left the ship making one trip a week to Progreso and sitting idle three days at the dock in Tampa.
Passenger loads picked up in March and April, with the last two trips carrying more than 500 travelers. That convinced the company to stick with the route, even though executives acknowledged they faced at least another season of red ink.
But when officials at Morelos still hadn't committed to the dredging last week, Hudson said, the company decided it couldn't come close to covering expenses for the ferry on just one trip a week.
"The market reaction at the end of the season was so positive, we're sure that if we can operate the ship cost-effectively, the route can be successful," he said. "We'd like to think when we start up next year, (the customers) will be there."
Scand-America is trying to line up airline charters to Mexico to replace cruises for the tour operator's customers, Fiskaa said.
Another tour operator says he reserved trips through Scand-America for about 100 motorcycle enthusiasts to take a 12-day cruise and ride trip to Cancun with their bikes.
Jim Lyons, owner of Motorcycle Cruise Tours in Orlando, figures he'll lose some customers who don't want to fly and rent a motorcycle.
"I marketed this as a unique package for people to sort of live a fantasy _ take the ship, ride four hours into Cancun and ride to the Mayan ruins," Lyons said. "It hurts."
_ Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.