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short-hop cruises on horizon at the port?

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Are short-hop cruises on horizon at the port?

Authority looks to lure line for 1- to 2-day trips

BY SCOTT BLAKE , FLORIDA TODAY

Port Canaveral has empty terminals just waiting to be filled by a small, budget cruise line. But is it too late, as, one after the other, the "little guys" of the cruise industry become extinct?

The Canaveral Port Authority want to find out.

Port officials are trying to fill one of the small, vacant terminals with a cruise line that offers one- or two-night voyages -- a traditional forte of budget cruise operators.

In recent years, Brevard County's seaport has been the world's second-busiest cruise port behind the Port of Miami. Last year, Port Canaveral drew more than 2.27 million passengers -- a record for Port Canveral, statistics show.

Port Authority Chief Executive Officer Stan Payne would not identify the companies the Port Authority is focusing on, except to say there are "a few out there we're looking at." Payne hopes short cruises still can be a potentially viable business at the port, with the Bahamas not that far away.

One drawback, compared with South Florida seaports, could be Port Canaveral's greater distance from the Bahamas and the Keys, which are favorite destinations for short cruises.

Payne wants to fill that niche at Cruise Terminal 3, one of the port's older terminals near the former entrance to Jetty Park.

Overnight cruises at Port Canaveral are dominated by corporate giants -- Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest cruise operator; Royal Caribbean International, the No. 2 cruise line; and Disney Cruise Line, an arm of The Walt Disney Co., one of the world's largest entertainment and media companies.

The three majors at the port sell three- and four-night trips to the Bahamas, as well as seven-night voyages to the Caribbean -- all on some of the largest cruise liners in the world, effectively shutting out small cruise companies that can't match the deep pockets of the big companies.

As ticket prices for cruises have rebounded to higher levels last seen before the 2001 recession and terrorist attacks, more customers are likely to bargain-hunt for discounted voyages.

Recognizing that, port officials see short, inexpensive cruises as a way to introduce cruising to people who have never taken a cruise, and who may be reluctant to pay more for a longer voyage without testing it out first. For the Port Authority, it's also a good way to occupy a terminal that's too small for the modern giants of the cruise industry.

Carol Fehr of Palm Bay is taking her first cruise in May out of Port Canaveral on Royal Caribbean's Sovereign of the Seas -- a three-night trip to the Bahamas.

"We decided to try it because all our friends and other people tell how great they are," Fehr said about cruise vacations.

She said the idea of taking a one- or two-night cruise also appeals to her.

"I think we would have tried it if that was available" at Port Canaveral, she added. "It would be nice to get away for a couple of days, and not have to stay on (the ship) that long."

Clifford Thomas, a visitor to Brevard County who worked in the merchant marine for years, said he prefers to fly to his vacation destinations, rather than take a cruise.

"I had enough" of the sea in the merchant marine, Thomas said.

But, if he did take a cruise, it would be a weeklong voyage, rather than a short trip, he said.

"A weeklong (cruise) would be better because there would be more time," Thomas said. "Just going for a weekend, there would not be enough time to see anything, unless you just hit the bars and nightclubs."

Terminal 3 was last occupied by Ocean Club Cruises -- a one-ship startup cruise line in 2003 that offered two- and three-night trips to the Bahamas on the Mirage I, a 30-year-old ship with a maximum capacity of 850 -- small by today's standards. The larger ships at Port Canaveral have capacities of 2,200 to 3,700 passengers.

Ocean Club lasted about a year before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from its creditors. Ocean Club started out by offering deep discounts to draw customers.

Many of the people who took the first cruise on the Mirage out of Port Canaveral -- a two-night trip to the Bahamas -- paid $60 to $140 per person. Last year, Isramco, an oil company, bought the Mirage out of bankruptcy court, and planned to lease the vessel to another company overseas.

Before Ocean Club came and went, Cape Canaveral Cruise Line operated two-day cruises to the Bahamas on the Dolphin IV, another relatively small older ship. Cape Canaveral Cruise Line, which also operated out of Terminal 3, went out of business in 2000.

Another company, Port Canaveral-based Premier Cruise Lines, which operated an older midsized ship at Port Canaveral, went out of business in 2000, burdened by debts, amid rising competition from the major cruise lines.

Premier had its ships seized by creditors, and Cape Canaveral Cruise Line said it opted to stop operating, rather than spend several million dollars to renovate its only ship.

Payne indicated that filling Terminal 3 with a small or midsized cruise ship is just one option, and one that port officials are not going to rush into.

"We're still in the exploration phase of this," Payne said. "Between now and the year's end, we'll have a better handle on what the market is."

In today's cruise market, a small, older ship seems like a long shot at success, said Jeanne Bernard, owner of Cruise One, a travel agency in Indian Harbour Beach.

Referring to Ocean Club Cruises, Bernard said: "I think their prices were fair. I think (the company's failure) had more to do with a lack of demand from people because they were using a very old ship. People don't want to go on an old ship."

She noted Premier Cruise Lines suffered a similar fate, closing about 41/2 years ago after operating a ship at the port for years that had become outsized and outdated by larger cruise lines coming out with new and ever-larger ships.

Still, Bernard said the right operation offering the right itinerary could succeed where others have not.

"If they offered a two-night cruise over the weekend, something like that might work," she added.

One such operation is Discovery Cruise Lines at Port Everglades near Fort Lauderdale. Discovery operates daylong and overnight cruises to Grand Bahama Island. Passenger can leave and come back in the same day, or can stay in the Bahamas for one or two nights.

Larry Turner, a representative for Discovery Cruise Lines, said Port Everglades is an ideal location for the cruise line because it is a direct trip to the Bahamas, and the company has been running the trips for years.

But Port Canaveral would be too far away from the Bahamas for daily cruises.

"It takes five hours now to get to the Bahamas. It's a straight shot from Fort Lauderdale," Turner said. "From Port Canaveral, that would add another two hours. That would be too long."

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