California Cruising in Critical Condition
By Paul Motter This is the month that the largest ship the West Coast ever had on a permanent basis, Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas, left California for good. The ship was relocated to Los Angeles in 2008, meant to offer 7-day cruises to the Mexican Riviera permanently, but after three difficult years RCL is moving the biggest ship in California to more profitable cruising regions (Europe and eventually Galveston).
Adding to the decline of California-based cruising, Royal Caribbean also moved Radiance of the Seas and Carnival removed Ecstasy out of San Diego last year. Both of these ships were offering mostly five day cruises to Cabo San Lucas, Catalina Island and Ensenada.
Last month Norwegian Cruise Lines announced that its only West Coast ship, Norwegian Star, will not return to Los Angeles after a summer season in Alaska, but will relocate to Tampa, Florida.
Just last week Carnival Cruises also announced that Carnival Spirit, an iconic West Coast ship for many years, will be leaving permanently in 2012 - bound for Australia. Spirit offered some of the most creative Mexico itineraries in the winter and the best Alaska values every summer. The West Coast is going to be a very different place without Carnival Spirit.
The only Mega-ship left in Los Angeles with regularly scheduled weekly cruises to Mexico; Carnival Splendor, made the news last month as the ship that went dead in the water. Splendor is still out of service and will not return until late February at the soonest. It is scheduled to be towed from San Diego to San Francisco this week to be repaired in the deepest dry dock facility on the West Coast.
There are a few bright spots. Disney Wonder is currently spending the 2011/12 winter season sailing out of Los Angeles but will relocate to Alaska next summer and is not scheduled to return to Los Angeles for the following winter season.
That leaves these ships still sailing out of California in 2012/13 on a regular basis; Holland America's Oosterdam, Carnival Paradise, Carnival Inspiration and Carnival Splendor when she returns to service. Sapphire Princess will sail to Mexico semi-regularly, but also has Hawaii, Asia and Australia itineraries.
In the middle of the 2000-decade it appeared the Mexico market was doing very well. Then the 2008 H1N1 outbreak knocked the air out of the Mexico cruise market literally overnight. Next came news of extreme violence in Mexico, which started to affect all tourism there. All of this has been further mitigated by the continuing national economic crisis which hit California especially hard.
Interestingly, the state of Texas has weathered this national recession far better than California, and as a result Galveston has become one of the most popular new ports in the U.S. In 2011-12 Galveston will have Carnival Ecstasy, Carnival Triumph, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Magic, Mariner of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas.
These California problems are bad but not insurmountable, but one of the the biggest challenges is making Mexico destinations as appealing as Caribbean ports of call. I had the opportunity to sail on two Mexico cruises in the last year, to the Mexican Riviera and the Sea of Cortes, and although the shipboard experience was perfect on both of them, the ports of call are sadly unrewarding - leaving a big gap in the cruise experience. Mexico has not done nearly enough to develop cruise tourism in my opinion.
On a typical seven-day Mexico Riviera cruise to Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas, the first two ports are sadly lacking in activities. Sightseeing is marred by dirty and scary cities, while outside of the cities there are few unusual activities. Only Cabo stands out as a clean and modern city with nice beaches as well as golf, horseback riding and even excellent shopping.
Shopping - never underestimate the importance; shopping made Saint Thomas the premier Caribbean port decades ago. Neither Mazatlan nor Puerto Vallarta offers anything beyond the typical temporary tourista stalls of pottery and leather goods.
Today, a Mexican Riviera cruise should be considered a shipboard vacation first - rather than a destination experience. Which makes it even more troublesome that some of the nicest ships are now leaving or have already left. But the problem is that we know Mexico's problems are beyond the reach of our help. But is it possible that California could do more to encourage cruises on the west coast?
In fact, California has long been a hotbed of anti-cruise sentiment, but at least one city, San Diego, has been especially hurt where it matters most, in winter tourism dollars. Perhaps California needs the same kind of wake-up call that was given to Alaska last year. The Seatrade Convention is right around the corner.
On the Horizon
The 2011/12 winter season may be the last decent season we see for the Mexico market for a long time with Disney Wonder and the last season for Norwegian Star and Carnival Spirit.
What will be offered in the 2012/13 season? Holland America offering the Oosterdam on seven-night cruises from San Diego is one of the brightest spots. Carnival Splendor will return to Los Angeles and Sapphire Princess will continue to offer Mexico cruises along with Hawaii and long sojourns to Asia and Australia. Carnival will continue with two Fantasy-class ships (Paradise and Inspiration) offering three, four and five-night cruises to Catalina Island, Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas from Long Beach.
Typically, port popularity ebbs and flows, and with ships leaving the region Mexico cruise prices will likely go higher, but that won't help California or Mexico tourism. If you think about it, cruises and other tourism are terrific opportunities for the U.S. to revive its relationship with Mexico. But it is going to require more than just upgrading port facilities.