TAMPA — The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba is down 40 percent for the first quarter of this year, but the outlook around Port Tampa Bay's cruise ship terminals remain upbeat.
It's optimistic enough that Royal Caribbean International on Monday launched a new, larger ship, the 880-foot-long Majesty of the Seas, in response to increased demand for sailings to Havana. Through October, Majesty of the Seas will offer four- and five-night cruises from Tampa to Havana that include day or overnight stays.
The Majesty of the Seas can carry more than 2,700 passengers. By comparison, last summer Royal Caribbean used its smallest cruise ship, the 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas, for its first summer of Tampa-to-Cuba cruises.
"We saw a demand and we took advantage of that, and here we are today with the Majesty of the Seas," Capt. Trym Selvag said before the ship put to sea for a five-day cruise.
That said, it's not nearly the biggest ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet. The Oasis of the Seas, for example, is about 1,200 feet long, and is also much wider and much taller, with room for more than 6,000 passengers and 2,200 crew members. But even with smokestacks that can retract 21 feet, it couldn't fit under the Sunshine Skyway.
Still, the Majesty of the Seas "has that small ship charm," said veteran cruise passenger Steven Piper, 61, who has done 19 or 20 cruises on some of Royal Caribbean's biggest ships, including the Oasis of the Seas, with his wife Becky.
"Just from the looks, it's nicer than the ones we've been on before," said another passenger, 24-year-old Colby Krodel of Jasper, Ind.
Meanwhile, Carnival Cruise Line also announced recently it is adding another Tampa-to-Havana cruise to its schedule next year. On Nov. 18, 2019, the Carnival Paradise will leave for a five-day voyage with an overnight call in Havana and a stop in Key West. That comes on top of 31 other cruises from Tampa to Cuba during 2019 that Carnival previously announced.
In recent years, Port Tampa Bay has sought to build its cruise ship business by bringing in refurbished smaller ships as opposed to headline-grabbing — and bridge-busting — megaships, as well as targeting easy-to-reach destinations and capitalizing on the bay area's population growth.
Cruise traffic has grown from 813,000 passengers in 2016 to a little under a million last year. But for the first six months of the port's current budget year — from October through March — the number of sailings from Tampa dropped 12 percent to 122, and the number of passengers dropped from 600,145 to 501,199, a 16 percent decrease. Despite the overall decline, the port saw its two busiest weekends ever this spring.
The drop-off so far this year is due to the relocation of vessels and adjustments to itineraries, "so we tend to miss a couple of weeks here and there, and then they're made up later," Port Tampa Bay executive vice president Raul Alfonso said. He expects this year to end up with more passengers than last year.
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And despite the decline in visits by U.S. citizens to Cuba, Alfonso said the cruise adds a dimension to the trip for many passengers above and beyond whatever the destination port may be.
"It's a simple, very attractive way of traveling," Alfonso said. "For us, I think it's a great addition."
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times