Port Tampa Bay projects 187 cruises, 400,000 passengers by fall of 2022

A working budget forecasts cruises to return at 50 percent capacity in October.
A cruise ship is seen docked at Port Tampa Bay in March 2020.
A cruise ship is seen docked at Port Tampa Bay in March 2020. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 19, 2021

This time last year, Port Tampa Bay officials believed the cruise industry would return to Tampa by April, bringing a few dozen ships to Tampa as the coronavirus pandemic began to ebb.

That didn’t happen. COVID-19 is still running rampant, and Tampa still hasn’t seen any cruise ships since March 2020, costing the port $1.8 million in anticipated revenue.

With the cruise industry ramping up in Florida, however, port leaders are feeling more confident about 2022.

Tampa Port Authority officials project 187 cruise ships carrying 400,000 passengers will pass through Tampa during the next fiscal year, according to a draft budget presented at a financial workshop on Thursday. Those figures assume six different ships operating at 50 percent capacity from October through September 2022.

For comparison, the port saw a record 1.15 million cruise passengers during the 2019 fiscal year, the last period that wasn’t affected by the pandemic. Even more had been projected in 2020 before COVID-19 shut down the industry.

David Delac, the port’s chief financial officer, called the projections conservative, but “very realistic and attainable.”

“With the continued uncertainty, it’s a little bit more challenging to make forecasts,” said Wade Elliott, the port’s vice president of business development. “But we’re starting to see the cruise industry ramp up elsewhere, and we’re excited to see sailings get started in mid-October.”

Related: Port Tampa Bay: Cruises could return to Tampa by October

Officials based the 50 percent capacity number on conversations with cruise lines, government officials and others around the industry.

“We think it’s going to be more than 50 percent, but given the events of the last 18, 20 months, we felt it was prudent to err on the conservative side,” said port president and CEO Paul Anderson. “We just don’t know what ‘s going to happen. I think 50 percent, there’s a part of me that thought that might be even a little bit high. But that’s the number we’re recommending, and we hope we do a lot better than that. Seventy or 80.”

A few board commissioners found the 50 percent capacity projection optimistic, even though other Florida ports have already budgeted for 75 percent capacity on some ships. Harry Cohen asked that budget officials wait as long as possible before committing to a forecast, given the unpredictability of current and future COVID-19 variants.

“I do think it’s one of those times where you go right up to the end with the latest information,” Cohen said.

While the port did lose projected revenue this past year from cruises not coming back, that loss didn’t kill its bottom line.

The port projects operating revenues from the 2021 fiscal year to hit $53.5 million, about $3 million above budget. Officials attributed that to a 26 percent increase in shipping revenue, with petroleum, limestone and sulfur outperforming expectations.

Those trends are expected to continue next year, leading to projected revenues of $59.5 million. Of that, the port is projecting about 9 percent to come from cruises, compared to about 17 percent in 2019.

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“We are cautiously getting back to the pre-COVID years, where we were approaching $60 million in revenues,” said Raul Alfonso, the port’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer.

The port is making early projections of $62.1 million in operating revenues for the 2023 fiscal year and $62.4 million in 2024.

Unless, that is, “there is another significant outbreak, and the CDC shuts down cruises,” Anderson said. “That’s out of our control.”