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Cruising is back in Tampa Bay with first ship in 18 months

Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas marks the return of cruises to Port Tampa Bay for the first time since the pandemic brought sea travel to a halt.
Tim Wronka (right) and Matt Infante (left), from Spectrum Bay News 9, shoot footage of Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas at Port Tampa Bay Saturday, October 16, 2021. Port Tampa Bay and Royal Caribbean International celebrated the first cruise vessel departure from Tampa Bay since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order about 18 months ago.
Tim Wronka (right) and Matt Infante (left), from Spectrum Bay News 9, shoot footage of Royal Caribbean's Serenade of the Seas at Port Tampa Bay Saturday, October 16, 2021. Port Tampa Bay and Royal Caribbean International celebrated the first cruise vessel departure from Tampa Bay since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order about 18 months ago. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Oct. 16

TAMPA — Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas docked at Cruise Terminal 6 Saturday morning for its maiden voyage to CocoCay in the Bahamas.

It’s the first cruise ship to sail out of Port Tampa Bay since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order more than a year and a half ago.

“It’s been a long 18 months,” said Russell Benford, vice president of government relations for Royal Caribbean at a press conference before the ship’s departure.

Passengers with luggage in hand arrived and went through COVID-19 testing before going onboard.

On his drive over, Visit Tampa Bay’s CEO Santiago Corrada said that when he saw the ship docked at the port, it brought a tear to his eye. Cruises are the last critical piece of the region’s tourism industry to come back, he said. Leisure and domestic travel carried Tampa Bay’s tourism throughout the pandemic. Business conferences are beginning to pick up speed, the borders will soon open to international travelers and now cruises returned.

“It’s a huge economic driver,” Corrada said. “We’re thrilled that we’re back.”

Russell Benford, Royal Caribbean vice president of government relations talks at a press conference at Port Tampa Bay on Saturday, October 16, 2021.
Russell Benford, Royal Caribbean vice president of government relations talks at a press conference at Port Tampa Bay on Saturday, October 16, 2021. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Cruises usually makes up about a fifth of the port’s revenues, which dropped by $7.5 million since the March 2020 shutdown compared to 2019. Travelers and crew members for a 3,000-passenger ship spend an average of $334,000 in a port city, according to estimates from Business Research & Economic Advisor, a market analyst firm.

While the return of cruises is expected to bring in tourists spending money in Tampa Bay, the ships won’t be completely filled yet.

Related: After long absence, Tampa’s port set for cruise ships’ return

The Serenade of the Seas is set at 50 percent capacity, with about 1,000 or more passengers on board plus 800 crew members, all who are required to be vaccinated unless under the age of 12.

J.P. Peterson, an avid cruise traveler from Atlanta, said the smaller passenger count makes it feel like traveling in a private yacht. The trip from Tampa to the Bahamas is Peterson’s second cruise since being on one of the last Oasis of the Seas cruises to sail before the coronavirus halted operations. His first one was between Mexico City and Nassau in June.

He struggled with booking and had three different trips cancelled, Peterson said. He stopped looking for a while, but in January he booked the tickets for October thinking that by then, cruises would return.

“None of us thought it would last a year and a half,” Peterson said.

There’s large demand for cruising after the hiatus, said Vicky Evans, assistant vice president of travel sales for AAA in Tampa. Overall, cruise sales for 2022 are outpacing 2019, according to Evans.

With cruises restarting, port officials said Saturday Tampa is set to add more destinations than it had before the pandemic, including the Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.

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In addition to the Royal Caribbean ship, several cruise lines are returning to Port Tampa Bay this year such as Celebrity and Carnival, scheduled to start sailing in November, and Norwegian, sailing in December.