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For decades, newly launching cruise ships always seemed to head to Miami. And the city isn’t called the cruise capital of the world for nothing — it has the popular pull of the perennial Caribbean and is, undoubtedly, a sexy destination.
But the tides are changing. The East Coast is no longer exclusive in attracting the latest and greatest; U.S. West Coast homeports are coming into their own — big time.
So, what do Seattle and the California cities of Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco and San Pedro have to offer? And why are they appealing to the likes of Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line?
The West Coast inherently plays a pivotal role in sailings to the popular locales of Alaska and Mexico, as ships seasonally reposition north for the summer, then back south and beyond for the rest of the year. California coastal cruises have also been successful, showcasing that the Western region is both an attractive destination and a viable source market — which is crucial for travel advisors.
“It’s estimated that roughly half the U.S. population is within a day’s drive of one of Carnival’s 19 homeports located along the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico,” said Fred Stein, vice president of revenue planning and deployment for the line.
Although embarking homeports and ports of call are operationally independent and compete to a certain extent, they also join forces at times. Christopher Chase, marketing manager for the Port of Los Angeles, points to Cruise the West, a shared marketing effort between Seattle; Astoria, Ore.; Victoria, British Columbia; and Catalina Island, Eureka, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Barbara in California.
“There are a lot of symbiotic relationships,” he said. “We actually work together frequently because we tend to share a lot of these ships during the course of time.”
But each destination has its own marketplaces, too, and its own advantages to hosting cruise ships. Below, we’ll explore some of the major West Coast ports in a southerly direction, down the coast from Seattle to San Diego. Advisors may find that, when it comes to cruising, the West Coast just might be the best coast.SeattleAs the northernmost embarkation point for Alaska cruises in the U.S., Seattle is a convenient option for clients who prefer a domestic departure without a flight to Vancouver, B.C.
According to a statement from the Port of Seattle, the city has been fortunate that the success of Alaska sailings has created a desire for cruise lines to put some of their newest ships in the city’s port — for example, Norwegian’s Norwegian Bliss.
The port highlights its customer service as one of its hallmarks, in addition to its complimentary Port Valet program, which allows passengers to easily check their bags directly from the ship to the airport. And pre- or post-sailing, clients can visit iconic Seattle attractions such as the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and The Museum of Flight.
Looking to the future, the Port of Seattle is working on a third docking spot along the waterfront.
“Our future cruise berth at Terminal 46 will encourage partnerships in personalization of the terminal facility and operations,” according to the port’s statement.
It is seeking a collaborator to develop and operate a new facility. Under consideration for such an endeavor is Cruise Industry Leaders Group, a partnership between Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., MSC Cruises S.A., Carnival Corporation & Plc and SSA Marine, Inc., says Charlie Ball, executive vice president of land operations and customer service for Holland America Group.
The exact facilities that contribute to cruise line success in the West are multifaceted.
“Several factors impact our decisions; among the top are airlift, transportation infrastructure, supply logistics, shore operations efficiency and the desirability of the port and its attractions,” Ball said.
San FranciscoSan Francisco is another homeport that facilitates Alaskan cruises, and it’s also a jumping-off point for beautiful coastal sailings, as well as Hawaii cruises. Cruise ships sail gracefully under the welcoming silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge, where, inside the bay, clients will find a city full of nostalgic and natural wonders. Guests can sightsee on Fisherman’s Wharf, ride the historic metropolitan cable cars, take a ferry to Alcatraz Island and go wine tasting in the nearby destinations of Napa and Sonoma.
“San Francisco’s guest satisfaction ratings are among the highest of cruise homeports in the world, and cruise lines are aware of this,” said Michael Nerney, assistant deputy director for the Port of San Francisco. “In fact, Carnival is offering roundtrip cruises from the city for the first time in 2020 — 28 calls by Carnival Miracle between March and October, which will bring the total number of sailings to 117 for the year [up from 85 in 2019].”
Carnival already plans to return to San Francisco in summer 2021 — but don’t expect the branded personalization of terminals that travelers are starting to see from multiple companies in Miami (or from Carnival solely in Long Beach, Calif.).
“San Francisco has hosted ships from Princess Cruises since 1969, and celebrated the 50th anniversary of this association in 2019,” Nerney said. “But our cruise terminals must remain flexible in order to serve all 20 cruise lines also doing business in San Francisco.”
San PedroSan Pedro might be a different story. Its Los Angeles World Cruise Center has historically hosted Princess vessels and started to serve as the homeport of maiden megaships such as Norwegian’s Norwegian Joy, a sistership to Bliss. And it seems the Port of Los Angeles foresees more collaborations with cruise lines to personalize port facilities and experiences.
“We’re open to any suggestions or opportunities to present themselves,” Port of Los Angeles’ Chase said. “If you look at what they’re doing in Seattle, there’s the opportunity to do a consortium of a couple cruise lines. We’re open to both; we don’t want to restrict anything. We want to see what’s best for the marketplace, with flexibility that provides long-term opportunity as markets go up and down.”
Scott Gray, president of Visit San Pedro, believes Princess may go the custom route in the destination.
“Princess is our dominant cruise line here, and it has done some outstanding advertising focusing on Los Angeles as a point of departure, so that would be the most likely candidate,” he said. “Out of 127 cruises or port calls currently scheduled for 2020 at the Port of Los Angeles, about 65% are Princess ships.”
In either case, new terminals are likely on the way, as the port expects to take proposals to build some new berths — something that has only recently become an option, as the market now demands it.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity to handle the largest ships around and any future plans people have,” Chase said.
In the meantime, the surrounding area is being rapidly enhanced. Phillip Sanfield, media director for the Port of Los Angeles, emphasizes the redevelopment of the area that used to be Ports O’ Call Village; it will soon feature a public market not unlike Seattle’s Pike Place. There are also plans to construct a 5,000-seat amphitheater by one of the primary Los Angeles promoters.
Long BeachThe Long Beach Cruise Terminal provides a case study for what might become a more bespoke experience at other California or Washington homeports, as it is already owned by Carnival.
The former Spruce Goose Dome of Howard Hughes’ titular aircraft fame is now the year-round home of the line’s newest Carnival Panorama ship, as well as Carnival Imagination and Carnival Inspiration.
The facility also sits adjacent to corporate-cousin Cunard’s famed Queen Mary oceanliner, which is now permanently docked. Long Beach Cruise Terminal was expanded in 2018 to nearly triple the usable space and streamline the embarkation and disembarkation process. The result is a beautiful terminal — themed to California’s natural surroundings — that is far less homogenous than most generic cruise ports.
“Carnival has sailed from the Long Beach Cruise Terminal since it opened in 2003,” said Carnival’s Stein. “We’re extremely pleased with it, particularly following last year’s extensive renovation, and it continues to receive very high marks from our guests. With the addition of Panorama, we expect to carry more than 600,000 guests annually from Long Beach.”
Stein explains that Long Beach is part of Carnival’s expansion along the West Coast, which seasonally includes San Francisco and San Diego.
“All these ports are part of an overall strategy of deploying ships near large segments of the U.S. population, which is more convenient and cost-effective for our guests,” he said.
San DiegoBesides Carnival’s Carnival Miracle, which makes roundtrips from San Diego, other cruise lines — including Disney Cruise Line and Holland America Line — frequent America’s Finest City. But what’s most appealing for the bulk of visiting clients, according to Ball of Holland America Group?
“An airport that is 20 minutes from the pier; our ships can turn in the port easily; and a city that, by itself, is already an attraction,” he said. “Downtown is a 20-minute walk from the pier, there’s a wonderful Embarcadero with plenty of maritime attractions, and San Diego has a great culinary scene. Whether our guests come early, stay late or just want a nice afternoon before sailing to Mexico, the city is an attractive gateway.”
There’s also San Diego’s close proximity to Mexico; added Amtrak access; Maritime Museum of San Diego; historic Gaslamp Quarter; Old Town; and more, all of which add to the local appeal, says Adam Deaton, senior trade account representative for the Port of San Diego. In addition to a new visitors center and a walk-up restaurant and bar, $31 million of improvements were recently made to the North Embarcadero’s public gardens, seating and esplanade.
And San Diego continues to venture onward with an eye to further future enhancements.
“Improvements to the B Street Cruise Ship Terminal would be the most effective way to continue building appeal for San Diego,” Deaton said. “The port is in the conceptual phase of developing improvements to the passenger experience at the terminal.”
In time, even more cruise lines are sure to follow. Now, advisors should prepare themselves and their clients for the next wave, as they discover what the residents of these Western cities already know: The West Coast is the next frontier of cruise territory.
The DetailsCarnival Cruise Linewww.carnival.com
Disney Cruise Linedisneycruise.disney.go.com
Holland America Linewww.hollandamerica.com
Norwegian Cruise Linewww.ncl.com