Following years of steady declines, San Diego’s cruise ship industry appears poised for a long-overdue rebound.
With cruise lines and passengers growing more comfortable with sailings in and out of Mexico, the Port of San Diego is expecting a 50 percent increase in cruise calls during the 2016-17 season. While nowhere close to the years-ago peak of San Diego’s once flourishing cruise industry when the number of yearly visits here approached 300, the more than 100 calls for the coming season marks a turning point.
“What we’re seeing right now is a significant increase from all of the cruise lines across the board,” said Kristine Zortman, cruise manager for the Port of San Diego. “The cruise lines are becoming extremely confident in the Mexican Riviera. In 2015-16, we were at about 68 calls. Since then, we’ve gotten the ’16-’17 schedule that goes from August through May of 2017, when we will have 102 calls.”
The volume of passengers this season is expected to rise from more than 200,000 to 250,000.
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“While we recognize we may never be back to where we once were,” Zortman said, “we’re seeing a real turnaround barring any unforeseen incidents in Mexico.”
The surge in cruise calls, as well as passengers, is driven in part by Holland America’s decision to substantially expand its cruise offerings, going from 21 during the current season to 34 for the following season beginning this fall.
The cruise line, which is San Diego’s most consistent visitor, offers multiple itineraries, including trips to Hawaii and through the Panama Canal, but the most frequent destination is the Mexican Riviera. The line’s 2017-18 itinerary isn’t finalized, but it expects the number of calls to increase, although not as much as next year’s growth.
“The main reason for the increase is we are more comfortable with Mexico and with the market in Southern California.” said Simon Douwes, senior director of deployment and itinerary planning for Holland America. “There’s more demand, and there’s also an increase in what we see people are willing to pay for their ticket.”
“San Diego used to be a very big destination, and after all the unpleasantness in Mexico, we pulled back quite a bit, but now that the situation is changing for the better, we’re basically moving back in.”
It was just a few years ago when multiple cruise lines began withdrawing from San Diego and also cutting their itineraries here and in Los Angeles, which has also experienced a gradual decline in its cruise ship business. Reports of drug-related violence led to skittishness among the lines, and passengers also complained about too few attractions and destinations along the northern Mexico coast.
“There are a number of people who like to cruise out of San Diego because they don’t want to fly but they’re limited to the same kinds of cruises,” said Michael Hart, who operates Expedia CruiseShipCenters in Point Loma with his wife Mary. “We get walk-in customers at our center all the time asking what do you have leaving out of San Diego.”
Unlike San Diego, Los Angeles isn’t expecting any major changes in cruise ship business for the year ahead, said port official Christopher Chase.
“For September 2015 through May of 2016 we had 121 ship calls and 620,072 passengers,” he said. “We expect the same for the September 2016 through May 2017 time frame.”
The Port of San Diego is especially encouraged by Disney Cruise Line’s continued interest in San Diego. Disney, which formerly cruised out of Los Angeles for a couple of years, has been consistently returning to San Diego for cruises of various durations to Mexico.
The coming season will not feature as many cruises on the 2,700-passenger Disney Wonder because it has plans to go into dry dock for repairs later this year, Zortman said. But in the fall of 2017, Disney already has committed to 12 calls in San Diego.
They range from two- and three-night cruises to Baja California to seven-night trips that include stops in Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.
“The big reason they like San Diego is it’s great for their drive market, which is all of Southern California, Nevada and Arizona,” Zortman said. “It’s an easy drive for a family coming on a Friday to get on a cruise to Mexico and then get home in time for the kids to get back to school. The other thing they’ve said is that Ensenada’s land-side amenities are improving, including a whole new embarcadero.”
Disney would not say much more about what is driving its interest in San Diego as a home port, beyond noting that “its location allows us to present a mix of cruise experiences and durations to both Baja and the Mexican Riviera, and it’s also conveniently located for our repositioning cruises through the Panama Canal.”
San Diego is also starting to see growing interest in the coming year from luxury lines like Regent Seven Seas that will be stopping here as part of a sailing that originated elsewhere. Port officials are hoping that as lines like Holland America and Disney continue to expand their offerings, other cruise ship companies will boost their visits.
“I think some of the smaller luxury lines are seeing that the larger lines are confident being back in the Mexican Riviera, and they tend to follow those same itineraries,” Zortman explained. “What we see is them starting off small to see if their clientele, which is different than, say, Holland America, to see if they can start selling those itineraries back to the Mexican Riviera.
“We’re talking to all of the lines about increasing their home-porting here.”