San Francisco cruise industry looking to rebound before America’s Cup 

On the heels of a 34-percent decline in 2010, San Francisco’s cruise industry is floating on hope, its future hinging on everything from Disney cartoons to Mexican drug cartels.

Click on the photo to the right to see more information on San Francisco's cruise industry.

Improvements for the America’s Cup race are set to renovate The City’s waterfront, most notably Pier 27, which would bring a new primary cruise ship terminal that more closely resembles an airport. Improvements to Piers 30-32 also could service more ships after the 2013 yacht race.

Considering that the Port of San Francisco is already expecting a cruise rebound in 2011, those berths might come in handy. But then there’s the little problem called Mexico.

Increased drug violence has left the Midwestern cruise-taking demographic squeamish, even if traditional destinations such as Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas remain safe, and boats avoid possible hot spots like Mazatlan or Alcapulco.

“It’s a perception,” said Gerry Roybal, maritime marketing manager for the port. “But you have to respect perception, because it’s a mass-market perception.”

The City’s weak cruise traffic in 2010 — just 41 ships, down from 62 in 2009 and 84 in 2004 and 2005 — primarily stemmed from fewer routes to Mexico, according to Renée Dunn Martin, a port spokeswoman.

Starting in 2003, a cruise boom to the Mexican Riviera sent San Francisco record cruise ship traffic for several years. In 2006, nearly 225,000 cruise passengers visited San Francisco, bolstering tourism, The City’s largest industry.

But following the drug-related violence that accompanied the 2006 election of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, cruise ship visits plunged in 2007 and again in 2010. Last year, no ships sailed to Mexico from San Francisco and so far, that is true this year.

News of public gunfights and beheadings also harmed Southern California’s larger cruise industry. Yet The City should benefit if those cruise liners are redirected north to Alaska.

“San Francisco is one of the few cities in the world that merits an overnight stay,” Roybal said, making The City an exception to the industry norm in which cruise lines entice customers to stay on board and spend money there.

Roybal said 5 percent of total expected passengers in 2011 should come from cruises in which San Francisco is the main destination. “We are a more established cruise port now than we were at the beginning of the decade,” he said.

Other potential economic boosts include the local debut of Disney Wonder, a cartoon-themed cruise, and three new 15-day routes to Hawaii by Princess Cruises.

Cruise ships might also act as floating hotels during the America’s Cup if rooms are sold out citywide, Roybal said. But Alaska remains the bread-and-butter destination from San Francisco and port officials are banking on that for now.

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Dan Schreiber

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