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After long absence, Tampa’s port set for cruise ships’ return this weekend

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas will carry the first passengers from Port Tampa Bay since March 2020.
When it departs from Port Tampa Bay on Oct. 16, Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas will be the first cruise ship to carry passengers out of Tampa since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
When it departs from Port Tampa Bay on Oct. 16, Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas will be the first cruise ship to carry passengers out of Tampa since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. [ DAN LAMONT | Royal Caribbean ]
Published Oct. 14

Over at Port Tampa Bay, they’re polishing every surface and and touching up the terminals with fresh paint.

It’s been more than a year and a half since the last cruise ship departed from Tampa around the start of the coronavirus pandemic. And in the days leading up to the return of ships this weekend, the port’s staff is making sure everything is ready.

“It’s not that we waited and now we’re jumping,” said Raul Alfonso, the port’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer. “We’ve been ready.”

When the Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas departs Tampa for a five-night cruise to the Bahamas, it’ll be cause for celebration for port executives, who plan to be on hand to personally welcome passengers. Cruises normally brings in more than a fifth of the port’s annual revenue, and it’s also an economic driver for tourists who travel to the region before and after their departure.

The cruise industry’s shutdown in March 2020 led to a revenue drop of more than $7.5 million for the port compared to the 2019 fiscal year. Port officials originally predicted cruises might return as early as this past April, but that never happened, leading to an additional shortfall in the port’s cruise budget this year.

With cruise ships under a no-sail order, the port turned its focus to other industries. This past fiscal year, shipping revenue saw a 26 percent increase, with the port adding new shipping routes, including one for bananas and pineapples from Dole.

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

After months of uncertainty about how cruise lines could safely resume sailing — not to mention legal challenges over whether cruise lines in Florida could require passengers to be vaccinated — Alfonso believes the port’s current cruise outlook is solid. Officials have budgeted for around 187 sailings carrying 400,000 passengers from now through September 2022. After Royal Caribbean, lines returning soon include Celebrity (Nov. 7), Carnival (Nov. 14) and Norwegian (Dec. 8).

Like all Royal Caribbean ships, the Serenade of the Seas will be capped at 50 percent capacity to start, which means it’ll have between 1,000 and 1,500 passengers in addition to its crew of more than 800. The crew will be vaccinated, said a company spokeswoman, and on-site testing will be available for vaccinated passengers who weren’t able to get tested before arriving. Royal Caribbean is encouraging all passengers to read their confirmation and itinerary emails closely to make sure they know when to arrive and how check-in procedures may have changed.

At least a few sailings from Port Tampa Bay have been postponed from late 2021 to 2022. But the port is also forecasting cruises to take place at only 50 percent capacity for the year — a projection that Alfonso said errs on the conservative side.

“We’re pretty optimistic that once it gets going, we’re going to feel good about it,” Alfonso said. “Anything to start it would be great. As long as we are complying and there’s safety observations that we get the cruises to start flowing again, that’s a huge positive.”