Five of the world's largest cruise lines suspended all stops in Mexico on Tuesday because of the swine flu outbreak, dealing another blow to that country's battered tourism industry.
The situation could mean additional cruise ship business at two Southern California ports of call, San Diego and Santa Catalina Island.
"We hate to benefit from some else's misery, but it's great if we get cruise ships every day for seven days straight," said Donna Harris, marketing director for the visitors bureau on Catalina, where cruise ships ferry passengers to shore in small boats.
"We are happy to welcome the cruise passengers who come," said Kate Buska, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's a great place for cruisers to visit."
Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the world's two largest cruise lines, made the announcement in response to recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid nonessential travel to the country. Princess Cruises, which is owned by Carnival Corp., along with Holland America Line Inc., one of the oldest cruise lines in the world, and Norwegian Cruise Line Corp. Ltd. also suspended all stops to Mexico.
To avoid docking in Mexico, the cruise lines either will route ships to alternative ports, such as San Diego or Santa Catalina Island, or will spend additional time at sea. Passengers already on the ships are unlikely to get a refund because of the change in itineraries, but travelers who are scheduled to take a cruise to a Mexican port may be offered a chance to switch to a ship with a different route, such as cruises to Alaska. No cases of swine flu have been reported on any cruise ships that have docked in Mexico.
"We hope people will understand that this is beyond our control," said Karen Candy, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruises. "We understand there will be some disappointment."
The Mexican cruise business has exploded, with the number of passengers more than doubling since 2000. Although destinations like the Caribbean and the Mediterranean draw many more passengers, Mexico is one of the world's top 10 destinations for cruise lines, with nearly 6.5 million passengers in 2008, according to the Cruise Lines International Assn.
A spokesman at Ensenada's party hot spot, Papas & Beer, said business has not dropped significantly in the last few weeks. But he wondered if the decision by the cruise ship lines could sink many ports of call businesses.
"We are very worried," said the spokesman, who declined to give his name.
The announcements are another blow to Mexico's economy, which has been reeling from the fallout of the swine flu outbreak that began in Mexico and is popping up across the globe.
Cruise line representatives said the ships that were already out at sea Tuesday have been rerouted to avoid Mexican ports. Decisions about whether to cancel, reschedule or reroute future ships destined for Mexico are on hold, pending meetings with health officials, the cruise lines said.
For example, the Sapphire Princess, a luxury boat that holds 2,600 passengers in 750 cabins, left from San Pedro on Saturday for a seven-day cruise, with a stop scheduled for Tuesday in Puerto Vallarta, followed by ports of call in Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas later in the week.
Instead, the ship remained off the coast of Mexico on Tuesday and was rerouted to San Diego and Santa Catalina Island, said Candy of Princess Cruises.
"Now, they have two ports to stop at instead of three, so there will be extra time at sea," she said.
So far, cruise line passengers seem to be taking the news in stride.
Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, an industry newsletter based in Brookfield, Ill., said he has heard of no widespread cancellations.
"Everyone is taking a wait-and-see approach," he said.
The reaction from cruise passengers who were sending online messages to blogs and other websites from the ships echoed those sentiments.
Laura Sterling, community manager for CruiseCritic.com, an online cruise line review site, sent the following message from the Carnival Spendor on Tuesday, off the Mexican coast:
"We just received word that we'll be making an unscheduled 'technical' stop in Cabo this afternoon at 2:45 pm. No one will be debarking. Speculation among the hosts and myself is that we'll be heading north soon afterward, and maybe porting in San Diego and/or Catalina?. . .
"Mood on board seems fine at this point. I suspect people really aren't paying that close attention to what the captain is saying. . . . I'm pretty sure our [Mexican Riviera] ports are history. Fine w/me actually, we're enjoying these sea days. There's a pretty great daytime atmosphere on board," Sterling wrote.
But Lucy R., a retiree from Los Angeles, posted Sunday on CruiseCritic.com, saying she planned to cancel a cruise to Mexico for fear of contracting swine flu.
"I am a 'Nervous Nellie' because I am an old lady who can't afford to get seriously ill with the swine flu. I will miss cruising on the Carnival Splendor but I can cruise later when things improve," she wrote.