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"Cruise Impressions" Column

Cruise Impressions (3/07): Ports Need Firm Course

Original Run Date - March 2007

Cruise Impressions:

Ports Need More than Automatic Pilot

The Port of Miami has had its challenges in coping with cruise growth over the past decade, but is making progress. The terminals of Royal Caribbean International are shown.*

By Anne Kalosh

Anyone who has embarked a ship at the Port of Miami knows that it can be a less than happy experience. If you fly, you also cope with an airport that’s notorious for poor service and slow baggage handling.

If you drive, you face navigating the construction-snarled streets in Miami that lead to the port. Once you’ve crossed the bridge to the cruise berths, you’re dodging motorcoaches, taxis, pedestrians and porters.

You might spot your ship, towering high above a terminal building, but the road is forcing you in the opposite direction. Then it’s where to park? And how will you lug all your bags?

I understand. I live in Miami and have sailed on dozens of ships from the self-proclaimed “Cruise Capital of the World.” The port handles millions of passengers a year. Therein lies the challenge. 

Logistical Marvel

Actually, it is amazing that tens of thousands of people, their luggage and thousands of pallets of provisions are processed at the port on peak days, week in, week out. This massive logistical marvel relies on scores of suppliers, government agencies, security personnel, longshoremen, transportation workers, and port and cruise line staff.

Even so, boarding and disembarking a ship can be a hassle.

Bill Johnson wants to change that.

He’s a veteran of Miami-Dade County government who took the port director’s helm in 2006. In Johnson’s view – radical for a bureaucrat – the port is in the hospitality business.

Miami has some of the world’s most modern cruise facilities, but when Johnson walks the terminals his temper flairs if he spots chewing gum, litter, weeds, a missing tile, stained carpet or a leaky roof.

“This port can do much better,” he told me.

Describing himself as “a perfectionist,” Johnson said he expects facilities to be clean and well-manicured, with tidy landscaping. He demands fresh paint, functional air conditioning and windows that glisten.

Moreover, he wants courteous taxi drivers and smiling workers. Johnson also pledges the port will provide free shuttles so passengers don’t have to trek so far from the car parks to their ship.

The Reality

I hope his efforts are successful. However, making all these improvements won’t be easy. Beyond cruise operations, Johnson faces other stiff challenges. He’s grappling with security costs that are among the highest in the nation and an exodus of cargo operators. 

Two new terminals being built for Carnival Cruise Lines were a year and a half behind schedule when Johnson came to the port. But under his leadership, they're expected to become operational in June. Norwegian Cruise Line is anxiously waiting to move into the facilities Carnival will vacate.

It’s not easy for ports to keep up with the fast-growing cruise business, especially those in South Florida that always attract the biggest, newest ships. It’s very costly to upgrade facilities to handle huge vessels.

You think Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 is big? That 150,000-ton ocean liner has already been outsized by Royal Caribbean International's 158,000-ton Freedom of the Seas. It’s based year-round in Miami and will be joined this spring by an equally hefty sister, Liberty of the Seas.

In the pipeline is a 220,000-ton ship codenamed “Genesis” which is expected to sail from Miami as well. Set to enter service for Royal Caribbean in 2009, it will be able to carry 6,400 passengers – plus a couple thousand crew.

A ship like that makes colossal demands on a port. Johnson hopes Miami can step up to the plate by designing a terminal that is a model of efficiency, with innovative passenger- and baggage-handling systems. Of course, he cautions that such a terminal has to make economic sense.

Like Miami, other ports in South Florida are jockeying to meet the demands of flotillas of new cruise vessels and their passengers.

Greater Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades in Dania also offers modern, dedicated passenger terminals. Compared to Miami, it is a breeze to reach, with direct access from an interstate highway. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is less than two miles away.

Holland America's Zuiderdam sails from Port Everglades in South Florida.*

But Port Everglades faces a parking crunch, too. Free shuttles are provided when passengers have to leave their car far from their ship. A newly acquired 18-acre tract of land between the port and the airport is targeted for parking to be shared by both facilities.

Another project is integrating the clutter of electronic, fixed and highway signs inside Port Everglades to help people find their way more easily.

On Florida’s Gulf coast, the Port of Tampa is conveniently reached from an interstate highway and Tampa International Airport. There are dedicated cruise terminals with on-site parking. Also, valet parking is available for an extra charge.

Handy for Tampa passengers is the Channelside complex with its restaurants, shops and IMAX cinema, all located steps from the cruise terminals. Adjacent to Channelside is the Florida Aquarium.

In Central Florida, Port Canaveral is a 45-minute drive from Orlando International Airport, and traffic usually flows smoothly for the dozen miles from the interstate highway to the port. Parking is adjacent to each of the dedicated cruise terminals.

The port staff and “meet and greet” personnel are drilled in customer service, said Canaveral spokeswoman Rosalind Postell Harvey. Tourist information is available at each terminal’s visitors desk.

“Our goal is to put visitors into ‘vacation mode’ as soon as they arrive at Port Canaveral, not wait until they board the ship,” Postell Harvey told me. “We want to provide customers with a ‘smooth sailing’ experience from the time that they arrive at Port Canaveral so that they will want to sail from Port Canaveral again and again.”

Infrastructure is important, yet more often it’s the people at a port who make the difference.

Anne Kalosh is a Miami-based journalist who has been covering the cruise industry for national and international publications for 25 years. She is the U.S. editor for Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Insider. Kalosh got hooked on cruising when, fresh out of college, she signed on with Royal Viking Line as a shipboard newspaper editor sailing the world.

*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of Dan Cowan, Port of Miami, and Holland America Line. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.

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