Cruise Philly? Maybe not next year.
The Delaware River Port Authority's 2010 budget shows no cruises are booked at the Philadelphia Cruise Terminal at the Navy Yard, although two cruise lines will have port calls here next year.
Philadelphia has never been a major cruising center. But mid-size ships, such as the Norwegian Cruise Line's Majesty, sailed the Delaware River as well as the high seas over the years to Bermuda, Canada and New England.
The cruise business has tailed off from a peak of 35 sailings in 2006 and 32 in 2005 to only eight this year.
As a result of the downturn, the DRPA, a regional transportation agency that also owns and operates bridges, cut its cruise budget 60.5 percent - a decrease of $333,000 - for the coming year. Three employees who worked on cruises will be reassigned to other duties, said the port authority's chief executive, John J. Matheussen.
"I wouldn't say the business is drying up, but at the same time I wouldn't say it's prospering either," he said. "Very soon, we think we might have an announcement that there will be some cruises in 2010, but I just don't have that right now."
The city faces several challenges in attracting cruise-ship business.
Medium-size, 2,400-passenger ocean liners have moved to Europe and European cruises because of the better value of the dollar. And the industry is moving to bigger ships that carry 4,500 to 5,000 passengers. Those mega-ships cannot get under the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
At the same time, Baltimore, Bayonne, N.J., and New York have become much more competitive, increasing the number of cruises they offer, including those to Bermuda.
Philadelphia's location 100 miles up the Delaware River has always been a constraint because cruise ships cannot open up their gambling operations until they get out to the ocean.
And it's faster to get to the ocean from New York, Baltimore and Bayonne.
"I have begged these cruise lines to put a ship into Philadelphia because we can sell it," said Marvin Weber, owner of Marvelous Travel and Cruise Planners in Plymouth Meeting.
"They say, 'Well, maybe you can sell it, but we can't make money.' They can't serve liquor, can't open up the shops, or open the gambling until they are in international waters. The same thing is true coming back," Weber said.
Jim Hughel, president and owner of Town Place Travel and Cruises in Marlton, has sold cruises out of Philadelphia, but not as many as out of New York, North Jersey, Bayonne and Florida.
Philadelphia cruising has always been seasonal, whereas year-around cruises were out of New York. "That's where the business was. They could fill the ships better out of New York City," Hughel said.
For years, Apple Vacations in Newtown Square had a weekly Bermuda cruise from Philadelphia, but not currently.
After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, 12 Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise ships were diverted here from the Port of New York, and Philadelphia's cruise business grew.
In 2008, Norwegian Cruise Line's Majesty made Philadelphia its home, offering 10 sailings that year and eight in 2009. But the Majesty was recently sold.
Port authority officials still have high hopes of securing more cruises and port calls, which they say would spur economic development and increase jobs, tourism and related spending on hotels, sightseeing and shopping.
"We have no one booked, but we are talking to some cruise lines," said Timothy M. Pulte, the port authority's chief operating officer. "We had a conversation this week with a cruise ship, and they are very much interested in Philly. We are still pushing it. It's not too late. Our season here is the summer into fall."
The upstream location "does hurt us a little bit. But cruise-ship companies we've talked to are still very interested," he said.
Logistically, cruise companies slot ships and itineraries 12 to 18 months in advance. "We are hopeful we'll have something nailed down at least for 2011, and optimistic, but not sure, for late 2010," Pulte said.
In 1998, the DRPA signed a 20-year lease for about $200,000 a year with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. to operate the cruise terminal, an adjacent pier, and a nearby parking lot.
To offset that cost, the authority rents out the historically registered brick terminal building for weddings, corporate events, parties, and the Philadelphia Antiques Show.
In the meantime, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. is still marketing cruises out of Philadelphia to travel groups.
"We believe in the sell that's here," said vice president Sharon Rossi. "If there are no cruises next year, we hope that won't be the case in 2011 and 2012."