Cruise enthusiasts are ready to set sail after a year of uncertainty as cruises return to the ports in Florida. Port officials and travel agents in Tampa Bay are also ready for the ports to reopen to cruise traffic.
“Florida has long been the global headquarters for the cruise industry — not only for their actual corporate headquarters, but for cruise home ports and cruise transit ports,” Florida Ports Council President Michael Rubin said. “The return of this industry means millions of state and local revenues, and hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
Rubin said prior to the pandemic, close to 20 million cruise passengers transited Florida Port Council seaports. Port Tampa Bay is one of the 14 member seaports of the Florida Ports Council.
Port Tampa Bay Director of Communications Lisa Wolf-Chason said pre-pandemic, cruise revenue made up 17% of Port Tampa Bay’s budget.
“The return of cruising will be a tremendous boost to our port and surrounding businesses that depend on tourism,” Wolf-Chason said. “Fortunately, Port Tampa Bay is one of the most diversified ports in the country with cargo, bulk cargo and a robust container business, which helps it continue to have a strong financial standing.”
In 2019, Port Tampa Bay had 1,149,289 cruise passengers. Visit Tampa Bay Chief Marketing Officer Patrick Harrison said losing those passengers negatively impacted Tampa Bay’s tourism economy, especially because most were from outside of Tampa.
“It’s not only the number of passengers, but it’s a number of hotel nights we were losing within the area, too,” Harrison said. “On top of that, it’s the related jobs of those people that we use in restaurants, even the parking lots, people having to fly in and use the airport.”
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Vice President for Strategic Communications and Public Affairs Bari Golin-Blaugrund said prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the cruise industry supported nearly half a million American jobs and over 1.1 million jobs worldwide.
“Based on those numbers, more than 40% of the jobs the industry supports are actually based in the United States,” Golin-Blaugrund said. “A very high percentage of those jobs are actually located in Florida.”
Cruise Planners franchise owner Kathleen Pohl is a land and cruise travel agent based in Tampa. With more than 4,000 clients over the past 14 years, Pohl said the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly affected her job. From 2019 to 2020, Pohl lost 75% of her income as a result of the pandemic.
“It has been a very challenging 15 months. We’re definitely excited to see that we have light at the end of the tunnel, that the ships are going to be sailing and that people are going to get to experience a cruise vacation again,” Pohl said.
The absence of cruises has not only impacted the economy, but it has also affected cruisers.
Dade City resident Robin Penix has cruised for over 30 years. The cruise enthusiast is one of Pohl’s clients and is more than ready to get back on a boat.
“This last year has been dramatic to me,” Penix said. “I have a cruise for August. If that goes through, I’d be happy to be the first one on the boat. If it doesn’t work out, I have one in October. I also have one for December next year.”
Brandon resident Julie Gherini is also one of Pohl’s clients. However, Gherini said she does not have any urgency to cruise at the current moment.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t sail as I’d feel comfortable cruising since vaccinations have been implemented,” Gherini said. “I would sail with a smaller ship because I have no care for the colossal ships with too many people.”
In the past two weeks, Pohl has booked about 25 cabins on cruise lines for 2021 and 2022. However, Pohl said 2021 might still be a difficult year for her as a cruise agent.
“We’re commission-based and we don’t get paid unless our clients travel,” Pohl said. “However, I definitely believe that in 2022 and 2023, we’re going to see some really good firm numbers and hopefully be back to what we were before the pandemic.”
Golin-Blaugrund said the return of cruise operations will be a gradual process.
“We don’t anticipate that the ships are going to all come back all at once and everything’s going to be back to normal,” Golin-Blaugrund said. “Of course, public health and safety is the number one priority.”
In planning ahead for a cruise vacation, Harrison said people need to take a long-term approach.
“If you’re planning on traveling in November and you’re going to be spending a night or two nights or three nights in a hotel before sailing, book the hotel at the same time that you are booking your cruise or even before you book your cruise,” Harrison said. “Make sure there is hotel availability because the first piece of your trip sets the tone for your entire vacation.”
Harrison also said travelers will have to be more flexible when vacationing.
“We’re all still in the stage of staffing up, trying to find people to handle a lot of the positions in which people were furloughed or laid off during the pandemic,” Harrison said. “People need to be more understanding.”
Port Tampa Bay expects to resume its cruise embarkations in November. However, the exact date is prone to change based on the decisions from health officials and the state government.