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Carnival Cruise Lines to resume visits to Mexico this month

May 16, 2009|Hugo Martin

Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest cruise line operator, announced Friday that it would resume visits to Mexican ports later this month.

The decision came after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would no longer recommend that Americans avoid nonessential travel to the country because of the swine flu outbreak.

The company, a unit of Carnival Corp., said its first cruise ship to return to Mexico would be the Carnival Holiday.

The four-day cruise departing May 28 from Mobile, Ala., will stop in Cozumel, Mexico, two days later. Carnival's regularly scheduled cruises to the Mexican Riviera will return to their original itinerary beginning that same day.

The news was welcomed by tourism boosters in Mexico as well as by ship operators.

"A majority of our passengers wanted to see us return to Mexico and so we have," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz.

No other major cruise line has announced plans to return to Mexico this summer.

Officials for Norwegian Cruise Line Corp. Ltd. said the company wouldn't return to Mexico until at least September, having already repositioned its summer tours for the East Coast, Alaska and Europe.

Holland America Line Inc., also owned by Carnival Corp., is not scheduled to return to Mexico until October. Princess Cruises, which has relocated most of its ships to begin cruises to Alaska, has only one ship off the coast of Mexico, the Sea Princess.

A spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, another Carnival Corp. unit, said the company was considering docking the boat at a Mexican port but has yet to make that decision.

Late last month, in the wake of an outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus, five of the world's largest cruise lines suspended all stops in Mexico, docking instead at Santa Catalina Island, San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

Many frustrated passengers complained bitterly, saying the alternative stops and on-board compensation were woefully inadequate. The cruise lines tried to appease passengers by offering full or partial credit toward a future cruise.

Some passengers were also given $20 in on-board credit for every port that was missed and not replaced with an alternative stop.

But the offers didn't appease every passenger.

William and Connie Dobberpuhl, a retired couple from Long Beach, received from their son a seven-day cruise on Carnival Splendor as a 40th wedding anniversary gift.

When the ship was diverted from Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas to Long Beach and San Francisco, William Dobberpuhl said the ship's captain and other Carnival officials were condescending and insensitive to passenger complaints.

He said the ship's crew didn't seem to care that the weather was cold and wet in San Francisco and that most of the passengers had packed only warm-weather clothes.

"I still have a pretty bitter taste in my mouth about how they handled the whole thing," Dobberpuhl said.

Jennifer Lank of Carlsbad, who was a passenger on the same Mexican Riviera cruise with her best friend and 81-year-old mother, said she recently received an e-mail from Carnival offering her a 50% discount toward a future cruise.

But Lank is reluctant to commit to another cruise. She said the ship's crew on the last tour was unhelpful, refusing to answer simple questions about the itinerary change.

"I was very disappointed with the way they handled things," she said.

The shift in itineraries brought much needed business to recession-stung merchants along California's coast but dealt a severe blow to Mexico's tourism industry, which was already reeling from the global economic meltdown and a violent drug war that has scared tourists away from its major cities.

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.

Cancun, one of Mexico's most popular tourist stops, has lost an estimated $2.4 million since the start of the outbreak, with hotel occupancy dropping 40% below usual levels for this time of year.

Earlier this month, Mexico's President Felipe Calderon announced a $1.3-billion tourism stimulus package in the hopes of drawing visitors back to his country.

At Costa Maya, a port along Mexico's southern Yucatan Peninsula near Cancun, news of Carnival's return was greeted warmly.

The port serves Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, both owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Norwegian, Holland America and Carnival.

In a statement, the president of the port of Costa Maya, Teofilo Hamui, said he was "thankful for the speedy return of Carnival Cruise Lines to our shores following the CDC's recent lift of its warning on Mexico travel."

He said he hoped Carnival's move would encourage tourists to return. The port was closed for a year because of damage from Hurricane Dean in 2007.

"We are no strangers to difficult times and are certain tourism in Mexico will return to normalcy very soon," Hamui said.

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hugo.martin@latimes.com

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