With Mexican cruises slumping in popularity, two of the largest ships serving the Port of Los Angeles are pulling up anchor for more lucrative markets elsewhere.
Royal Caribbean said its 3,100-passenger Mariner of the Seas, after a Mexican Rivera voyage that begins Sunday, will leave the Port of L.A. for South America and Europe, ending up in Galveston, Texas. Norwegian Cruise Lines will pull its 2,348-passenger Norwegian Star out of the port in May. The ship will eventually settle in Tampa, Fla.
Cruise line officials and port officials say the moves stem from the sour economy and continuing drug-related violence in Mexico. Just last weekend, Mexican authorities discovered the bodies of at least 30 new victims in the popular tourist port of Acapulco. Fifteen were beheaded.
"We are struggling with our many ships to Mexico," said Chris Chase, marketing director for the Port of Los Angeles. "It's the economy and the news of drug wars down there."
The two departing ships carried nearly half of the Port of Los Angeles' passengers in 2009. So far, no cruise lines have announced plans to abandon the Port of Long Beach, but Carnival Cruise Lines said this week that its Carnival Spirit, which has docked at both Los Angeles and San Diego, will start sailing out of Australia in 2012.
The departures come amid signs that the nation's $40-billion cruise industry is beginning to recover from the economic downturn, particularly in Florida, the industry's No. 1 market.
Overall, the North America cruise business saw a 6% jump in passengers in the first six months of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Growth has been especially strong in the Bahamas and Bermuda trade.
Southern California is going the other direction, however. Combined, the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego served nearly 590,000 passengers in the first six months of 2010, a drop of 3% from 2009 and a 21% plunge from 2008, federal numbers show.
"The market out there has literally crashed," said Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry analyst.
Chiron said tourists' fear of drug violence in Mexico was probably the main reason that the California cruise business was not recovering. Another reason could be a loss of interest in Mexican tourist attractions, he said.
Most of the drug violence has occurred in Mexico's border towns, but in recent months it has seeped into tourist hot spots.
In addition to the violence in Acapulco, the mayor of Cancun was arrested last year on drug-trafficking charges in the middle of his campaign for governor of the state of Quintana Roo.
Mexico tourism officials declined to discuss the drop in cruise numbers. Alfonso Sumano, director of the Americas for the Mexico Tourism Board, said in a statement that the nation's secretary of tourism would soon launch an effort to promote Mexican cruise destinations
"The destinations of the Mexican western coast are a top priority in our plan of action," he said.
Nationally, Mexico attracted about 502,000 cruise passengers from North America in the first six months of 2010, 26% less than the same period in 2008, according to the Transportation Department. Just 187 cruise voyages docked in Mexican ports in the first six months of 2010, compared with 290 voyages in the same period in 2008.
Cruise line executives acknowledge that drug violence has cut into demand, but they stress that the risk of cruise passengers becoming victims is very small.
"We would not head into a region where there is any threat to our guests," said Brian O'Connor, spokesman for Cunard, the luxury cruise line that sails from Los Angeles to ports including Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.
Terry Thornton, a senior vice president at Carnival Cruise Lines, said in a statement that the perception of Mexico as a vacation destination "is being negatively affected by the highly publicized incidents of violent crime. Fortunately, these incidents have really not been focused at tourists."
The only bright spot in Southern California's bleak cruise picture is the scheduled arrival this month of the Disney Wonder to the Port of Los Angeles. The Wonder is expected to carry nearly 175,000 passengers a year.
But that arrival reflects Southern California's second-tier position as a cruise ship destination. The Wonder is pulling out of Florida to make room for Disney's newest ship, the 14-deck Disney Dream, a behemoth that is about 150 feet longer than the Wonder and can hold almost 1,600 more passengers.
Some industry officials believe that Mexico's decline in popularity as a cruise destination is only temporary and will eventually rebound.
"We are definitely down, but we've been down before," said Rita Wandergaw, a spokeswoman for the Port of San Diego. "For me this is a cyclical change. I'm optimistic it will turn around."
Pat Ford, a cruise agent at Montrose Travel in Montrose, said she still was selling many Mexico cruises and "every once in a while I get the question 'Is it safe to go to Mexico?'" She tells potential passengers that most of the drug crime takes place far from the resort towns, Ford said.
The good news for cruise passengers who are not deterred by news of drug violence is that cruise lines are offering big discounts on trips to Mexico and that the lines at resort-town restaurants and shops are short.
Jan Braunstein, a retired educator and part-time actress from Claremont, took a seven-day cruise to Mexico on Royal Caribbean last year and said she never worried about drug violence while visiting Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.
Instead, Braunstein described having a great time eating and drinking margaritas with three friends.
"There wasn't a line anywhere," she said of her visits to the Mexican resorts. "It felt like off-season."