Uptick in cruise ships Charleston expects increase in cruise passengers over next year

The Seabourn Sojourn, as seen from Charleston's Waterfront Park in 2011, is expected to return to Union Pier Terminal in October for a brief port of call.

Grace Beahm

Additional voyages by the Carnival Fantasy and a recent East Coast restructuring by the vessel’s owner is expected to provide a bump in the number of pleasure ship passengers who pass through Charleston, officials said.

The S.C. State Ports Authority expects 184,600 cruise vacationers to pass through its Union Pier Terminal for its 2014 fiscal year, which began Monday. That’s up about 2.6 percent, or 4,800 passengers, from the previous 12 months.

The projected gain is largely tied to Carnival Cruise Lines’ Fantasy, which operates five-day trips out of Charleston to places like Key West and other island ports of call.

The 2,056-passenger ship is scheduled to originate 71 cruises from Union Pier, or two more than in the SPA’s last fiscal year, said Allison Skipper, spokeswoman for the maritime agency.

The Fantasy was in dry dock for improvements for part of last winter, she added.

Also, the number of cruises that start in other ports and visit Charleston is expected to increase by two, to 18, over the next year.

The SPA’s predictions were released before Carnival said last week that it plans to move its ships home-ported in Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., to Florida this fall, partly because of higher fuel costs associated with new federal standards.

Aly Bello-Cabreriza, a spokeswoman for the Miami-based company, said Monday that there are no plans to move its Charleston operations. She added that Carnival Fantasy will remain based in the city and the line has no plans to add any additional ships.

Carnival’s retrenchment up in the mid-Atlantic region could drive more cruise business to the Lowcountry, at least in the short-term, said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA.

Newsome said Virginians already make up the fourth largest group of customers for departures from Charleston.

Also residents from Baltimore and the nearby nation’s capital have easy access to the Lowcountry because of the daily nonstop service offered by Southwest Airlines between Charleston International and Baltimore Washington International airports.

“This bodes wells for the future,” Newsome said last week. “Carnival Cruise Lines is a very important customer for our port.”

The expected rise in cruise ship passengers comes as some downtown Charleston neighborhood groups and environmentalists also have filed lawsuits to block the SPA from opening a new $35 million cruise terminal at the north end of Union Pier, alleging it will bring more tourists, traffic congestion and fumes to the historic district.