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Charleston port offers new routes for cruises

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Caribbean trips will not be only options for travel

After two years of frequent jaunts to the Caribbean from Charleston, major cruise lines are beginning to show signs they're ready to offer some itinerary changes. In the U.S. cruise industry, Charleston is still a minor port. Yet after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it reaped the benefits when cruise lines began offering more cruises from ports outside of South Florida.

That shift was a big boon to cruise passengers in the Carolinas. Instead of flying to Miami or Port Canaveral to catch a ship, they could drive to Charleston. Now, with Charleston having no plans to expand the port, cruise lines are making further adjustments to attract repeat customers who don't want to go to the same places aboard the same ships.

The Norwegian Majesty, a 1,462-passenger ship, has been Charleston's major workhorse. It has offered cruises weekly to the Western Caribbean from November to April for the past two seasons. That means stops in Key West, Fla.; Cozumel, Mexico; and Grand Cayman.

This month, Norwegian Cruise Lines confirmed it is offering four cruises of seven nights to Bermuda from Charleston in the fall of 2006.

The other major cruise line serving Charleston, Carnival Cruise Lines, is bringing in another ship next year for the two cruises it offers from the city, one in May and the other in October. There could be other changes afoot. The S.C. State Ports Authority is talking with a number of different cruise lines about service to Charleston. Norwegian's contract with the port has expired, though the cruise line is still announcing new embarkation dates out of Charleston.

Unlike other markets in which people fly to catch cruises, the Charleston market is heavily a driving market. A 2003 study showed 19 percent of cruise ship passengers from Charleston came from the immediate area. About 85 percent came from the Carolinas.

Since big cruise ships began heading to Charleston after the 9-11 attacks, the number of cruise passengers passing through the city has quadrupled, to 90,680 in 2003, the most recent year available. Charleston is still far smaller than major cruise centers. About 44 percent of all cruise passengers left from South Florida last year, according to the U.S. Maritime Administration. Charleston accounted for less than 1 percent.

Many Charleston residents like it that way, said John Crotts, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at the College of Charleston. "Charleston has been a very strong community in not just allowing tourism to happen but in managing the growth of its tourism," he said.

By Tony Mecia, Knight Ridder, The Sun

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