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Tampa port forecasts limited return for cruise ships by April

Port Tampa Bay leaders say it's a hopeful yet educated guess. But the industry still faces plenty of unknowns.
A cruise ship is seen docked at at Port Tampa Bay on March 18, 2020 in Tampa.
A cruise ship is seen docked at at Port Tampa Bay on March 18, 2020 in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 20, 2020

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Port Tampa Bay thought 2020 would be a record-setting year for cruise ship passengers and revenue.

Today, with the U.S. cruise industry still dry-docked, the port is a lot more bearish on 2021.

Port officials are forecasting an extremely limited return for Tampa’s cruise business next spring, with a possible expansion by next summer. It’s an educated guess leaders say is based on conversations with industry leaders and other port officials, and one they admit is somewhat hopeful.

“It really is the elephant in the room, is the forecasting of cruise,” port CEO Paul Anderson said during a budget meeting on Thursday. “We’re typically fairly conservative with our forecasting, but this one we just don’t know yet. But we are working to do everything we can to support the cruise industry to return at some point. … It could be sooner. We hope it won’t be later.”

Related: Tampa port officials: Channelside Drive changes would snarl cruise traffic

The shutdown of the cruise industry has contributed to a projected 9.5 percent shortfall in the port’s projected operating revenues in 2020, as well as an additional projected 10 percent drop in 2021. Through the first 10 months of the current fiscal year, which ends in September, the port is down nearly 50 percent year-over-year in cruise ship sailings and passengers, a drop that will steepen while the industry remains shut down in August and September.

In most years, the port’s cruise revenue is easy to project, since cruise lines typically reserve their berths a couple of years in advance.

To project a cruise budget for 2021, port officials have settled on a model based on one Carnival Cruise Lines ship launching at 50 percent capacity in April, then expanding to 100 percent by July.

Those dates and occupancy rates are “neither overly aggressive nor overly conservative,” said chief financial officer David Delac, and could change. But if they turn out to be accurate, the port would expect to see just over 123,000 cruise passengers during the 2021 fiscal year — a drop of nearly 90 percent from 2019.

Related: Port Tampa Bay safety officials hope to learn from Beirut port explosion

Raul Alfonso, the port’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said there was “a good chance that cruise would be back in April, at least at 50 percent,” but acknowledged the plan “is based on a hopeful reality.”

“We are playing it kind of safe, but we do have to monitor decisions that are going to be made in November and throughout the winter,” Alfonso said. “We’re at the mercy of decisions that are going to come.”

The Centers for Disease Control has issued a no-sail order for cruise ships in U.S. waters until Oct. 1, while the Cruise Lines International Association has suspended U.S. cruises through Oct. 31.

This year, the port had planned to bring in new ships from Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and MSC Cruises. Officials want to bring them back when the industry reopens for business.

“Some of those lines, including MSC, have started European cruises, short cruises,” said vice president of business development Wade Elliott. “That’ll be interesting to watch, and hopefully give us an indication of where we’re going.”

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Anderson said the port’s board might meet again in the coming months to revise the budget based on new information offered by the government.

“Maybe we have to realign for better or for worse,” he said. “Hopefully for better.”