[Maritime Week / Bell Street Pier]


But how soon they come remains to be seen

By Bruce Johnson
Special to the Journal

Next month, the Port of Seattle is scheduled to receive possession of its new Bell Street Pier complex that will include an international conference center, future contemporary maritime museum, a fish processing facility and the initial makings of a cruise ship terminal.

Development of a 1,572-foot pier capable of berthing two cruise ships and a transit shed able to handle passengers demonstrates that the port is serious about attracting major Alaska cruise business to Seattle. Currently, activity involving large cruise ships is limited to vessels being repositioned northward in spring to a summer season of cruising between Vancouver, B.C., and Alaska and southward in fall from that market. For example, Holland America Line's 18-month-old Ryndam is due to make its inaugural visit to Seattle on Saturday, May 11. Cunard Line's Crown Dynasty, another Seattle newcomer, is scheduled to arrive Wednesday, May 16, and Holland America's

Westerdam is due to put into port Friday, May 17.

These three ships will tie up for the day at the port's Pier 91 in the north harbor. But after the Bell Street Pier facilities are due to be handed over to the port June 11, calls will be at these Pier 66 facilities -- starting with Seabourn Cruise Lines' medium-sized luxury liner Seabourn Pride on June 27.

The Port of Seattle hopes to soon fill the empty second floor space of the Bell Street Pier project with cruise line tenants.

Initially, Seattle's cruise terminal will consist only of the two-berth pier, available for mooring other vessels such as factory trawlers, and a first-floor area in the transit shed for handling baggage and Customs clearance. Eventually, when it's successful in attracting a company home-porting a cruise ship for a summer-long series of sailings to Alaska, the port plans to develop a second-floor transit shed area into a pleasant place for waiting passengers and a modern ship-boarding gangway that automatically adjusts to the changing tide.

"The first carrier that signs up" for Seattle home-port sailings "will help us design the facility to fit their needs," said Bob Koplowitz, the port's director of marine marketing and business development. How soon that happens remains to be seen, though. Presently, the Passenger Services Act of 1886 restricts foreign-flag cruise ship operations between U.S.ports, such as Seattle and Alaska locations. Attempts to amend the act to make it easier for foreign-flag cruise ships to operate in these trades have failed so far.

Almost all large cruise ships are operated under foreign registries. The only U.S.-flag cruise operations in the Pacific Northwest involve smaller cruise vessels operated by such companies as Seattle-based Alaska Sightseeing Tours. Because of federal restrictions on foreign-flag cruise ship operations between U.S. ports, Seattle's business involving large cruise ships is limited to about eight repositioning stops per year. Large cruise ships sailing between this region and Alaska use Vancouver as their summer home port.

A dozen lines with more than 20 ships sail from Vancouver, and total cruise traffic from that port is projected to reach a million passengers by the year 2000. This summer, Seattle-headquartered Holland America alone will have six ships in the Vancouver-Alaska market.

Even with the opening of a recently rejuvenated second cruise ship terminal, Vancouver is running out of weekend and other sailing slots preferred by cruise lines. So, Port of Seattle people feel they have potential for pulling in two or three home-port cruise ship operators, now that a new facility is ready to roll.

However, that's not likely to happen next summer because no line has opted yet for Seattle on a home-port basis, and schedules for next year were pretty much in place by late winter of this year.

"We were hoping for the '97 season we would get someone," Koplowitz said. "But it doesn't look like we will. We would have heard by now.

"Two or three lines are seriously studying Seattle as a home port instead of Vancouver," he added, though. "There are over 20 new vessels -- big vessels -- coming into service in the next five years. Vancouver's capacity will eventually run out."

Koplowitz sees a parallel between the container shipping and cruise ship industries. Typically, the port attracts larger containerships when the newest, even-larger such vessels enter service in California. He believes the same thing will happen as larger, latest-generation cruise ships enter the Vancouver-Alaska market and some of the other vessels start looking for a new home port elsewhere, hopefully in Seattle.

Port officials prefer to see the federal law amended so that it would be easier to attract one or more major cruise lines on a home-port basis. But even if that doesn't happen, there is long-range potential for Seattle as a summer-long port of embarkation for Alaska. Key things going for Seattle, Koplowitz believes, include the area's tourism attractiveness, the ability of the port to offer choice sailing schedules for cruise lines and the increasing desire of cruise lines to distinguish themselves by having innovative itineraries.

The port's facilities are going to be in the heart of the city's public access waterfront area, pointed out Marla Kleiven, general manager of the port's central waterfront, piers and property. She noted that passengers will be able to use the skywalk and elevator connections to Pike Place Market and other downtown destinations and that the Bell Street Pier area itself will be a major attraction.

Including a short-stay marina where excursion boats will be based, the port's central waterfront development project is a $64 million investment by the port. (The marina is due to open Saturday, May 18 -- just in time for Seattle's annual Maritime Week festivities.) If the federal law isn't changed, it will be difficult for cruise lines to sail the same day every week as most of them do now out of Vancouver. That's because the lines are obligated to call at a Canadian port -- either Vancouver or Victoria -- if they sail between Seattle and Alaska. But Koplowitz envisions more lines opting for round-trip voyages of 10 or 11 days out of Seattle, just like a few lines do now for 12 or 13 days out of San Francisco to Alaska.

"We'll never replace Vancouver," Koplowitz acknowledged. "But we feel there's enough growth in the industry that we can pick up one or two home-port lines."

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