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Tampa port leaders: Cruises likely won’t return until fall, maybe even 2022

The port had budgeted for cruise ships to return in a very limited capacity by April.
Carnival Cruise Line has announced that its ship Paradise, shown here in 2019, will be dry-docked through October. Paradise called Port Tampa Bay home. Port officials said Feb. 16 that they do not anticipate cruise ships returning to Tampa until this fall at the earliest.
Carnival Cruise Line has announced that its ship Paradise, shown here in 2019, will be dry-docked through October. Paradise called Port Tampa Bay home. Port officials said Feb. 16 that they do not anticipate cruise ships returning to Tampa until this fall at the earliest.
Published Feb. 16

A new reality is sinking in for the cruise business at Port Tampa Bay.

Port officials said Tuesday that they do not expect cruise ships to be back in Tampa until at least the fall, a shift from projections that one or more could return this spring.

The acknowledgment during a meeting of the port’s board of commissioners was not a surprise. Most lines have announced they were canceling voyages until fall, including Carnival Cruise Line, whose Paradise sails out of Tampa.

But as part of its 2021 budget passed last fall, the port had counted on at least one ship returning at 50 percent capacity by April, with dozens more coming over the summer. That translated into $1.8 million in anticipated revenue, give or take, depending on the start date.

Now the port will go back to its budgetary drawing board.

“At this point, it certainly doesn’t appear that we will see anything return to regular cruise activity until the fall,” said Wade Elliott, the port’s vice president of business development. “The crystal ball is such that vaccines, so many factors, could come into play there. We would hold out hope that we will still see some activity sooner rather than later, but it’s uncertain.”

Related: What cruise line can you book for maximum flexibility?

Earlier this month, Mike Rubin, vice president of government affairs for the Florida Ports Council, told a state Senate transportation committee that Florida’s robust cruise industry could take another year to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It remains the only industry that’s still not allowed to operate in the United States, and that has a significant activity on Florida,” Rubin said.

President and CEO Paul Anderson said the port should re-evaluate its 2021 budget by removing any possibility of cruise revenue (as well as the expenses that go along with it). But he was heartened by the rest of the port’s business performance. From October to January, the port’s income was 9.1 percent above budget, thanks to stronger-than-expected revenues in areas like steel and cargo imports.

Before the cruise industry can reopen, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will likely require companies to run simulated cruises or test sailings with limited passengers and routes.

In Florida, that would probably happen from Miami or Port Canaveral, said Raul Alfonso, the port’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer. But Tampa might see some limited action from smaller ships — in which case the port might not want to abandon hope of any cruise revenue just yet.

“I think we have a couple of months,” Alfonso said. “Who’s to know that we’re not chosen by one of the cruise lines to do a trial cruise in the summer, if that happens?”