Finding a port capable of handling the world's two largest cruise ships, which can each carry more than 8,000 passengers and crew, might seem a formidable task.

But there is no shortage of ports that would love to accept the challenge.

On Aug. 8, Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades said it would enter into negotiations with Royal Caribbean Cruises to win homeport status for Royal Caribbean International's two Genesis-class ships, the $1.2 billion, 5,400-passenger vessels that are scheduled to debut in 2009 and 2010.

Documents, including correspondence between Royal Caribbean and the port, have recently been made public, offering a glimpse into how cruise lines choose ports. The documents also reveal that a contract to homeport these megaships is expected to mean thousands of local jobs, millions of dollars in terminal improvement costs and bragging rights for years.

In response to queries from Travel Weekly, Royal Caribbean would say only that it was holding preliminary, fact-finding talks with several ports about homeporting the as-yet-unnamed Genesis-class ships. The company declined to say where Port Everglades stood in the running.

"Port Everglades is merely asking the Broward County Commission for permission to proceed with further discussions," Royal Caribbean said in a statement. "We appreciate Port Everglades' interest, and we look forward to talking to them further."

Phillip Allen, Port Everglades' director, expressed confidence that Fort Lauderdale was Royal Caribbean's first choice.

"While Royal Caribbean has not committed to closing off negotiations with anybody else," he said in an interview, " ... assuming that we can come to terms, we are the preferred location for the Genesis."

According to various newspaper reports, the Port of Miami and Port Canaveral have also expressed interest in housing the ships. Neither port responded to requests for comment. Miami is currently home to what are, for now, the world's largest ships, Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class vessels.

Other ports around the country might  also love to make a play for the vessels, but according to Steve Cernak, port director of Galveston, Texas, Florida ports are the only ones in the running. "Historically, all the new deployments of a new class of ship has always taken place in a one of the Florida ports," he said. "While Galveston would love to have that vessel and could handle that vessel, we also recognize that it's a business decision of Royal Caribbean."

Port Everglades and the Port of Miami are separated by only 28 miles of Florida coastline, but they are divided by an increasingly competitive environment to get the newest and largest cruise ships.

"Both the Port of Miami and Port Everglades are desperately trying to get Genesis to homeport with them," said Ken Dubbin, a former Royal Caribbean executive who now runs K. Dubbin & Partners, a boutique consulting company.

It would be "super prestigious" for either port to boast the largest cruise ship in the world, Dubbin said. "Port Everglades has been trying to unseat Miami as the cruise capital of the world," he added. 

The Genesis contract is also highly desirable because of its significant impact on a port's local economy, Dubbin said.

A study commissioned by Port Everglades estimated that the Genesis-class ships' year-round presence would create 3,800 jobs, generating a total income of $172 million. Anticipated construction on the ships' terminal alone would generate 850 local jobs.

The study also predicted that the ships would bring approximately 562,000 to 666,000 passengers per year, per vessel -- passengers are counted as they embark and debark -- into the port based on year-round service, bringing $200 million in port fee revenue to the port over 10 years.

Dubbin negotiated with both Miami and Port Everglades when Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class was on the drawing boards in the late 1990s. He said that in both instances there had been a similar competition between the two ports.

"Playing one port against the other was very beneficial for the company," he said. "This competition should allow RCCL to negotiate a very good deal, so long as they have multiple suitors vying to get the ship, which I have every expectation they will."

Allen said there were various reasons that Port Everglades would be Royal Caribbean's first choice.

"Canaveral has dredging issues facing them; Miami's issue would be [passenger] access through downtown Miami as well as terminal issues," Allen said.

Port Everglades, too, would need to undergo major construction to accommodate the 220,000-ton megaships, which are 40%  larger than the Freedom-class ships. That could include a $37 million expansion of its Terminal 18 building, according to a prospectus that Royal Caribbean sent to Port Everglades.

How that expansion would be financed is up for negotiation, but in its prospectus Royal Caribbean said that if the port made the capital outlay, a passenger head tax -- a significant source income considering the number of guests the ships would carry -- could recoup the costs.

Allen said that in the past, terminal improvements had not been designed specifically to accommodate certain vessels or cruise lines, and so the port footed the costs.  In this case, he said, since the terminal would be expanded to accommodate Royal Caribbean, the port would expect the cruise line to reimburse it.

"How they do it will be subject to the negotiations, and how they charge for it would be their determination," Allen said. In a letter Allen sent to Royal Caribbean's president, Adam Goldstein, he said that a passenger head tax of $4.95 (charged when embarking and debarking) with a commitment to operate the two ships year-round through 2019 could recoup the costs.

A selling point for the port, Allen said, was that Port Everglade's channel and turning basin would need no modifications or dredging to accommodate the ship, which is 6% longer than the Freedom-class ships. The channel is 450 feet wide and 44 feet deep; the ship would require 400 feet and 36 feet, respectively.

Allen said the Genesis-class ships could need three gangways, while the largest ships now at the port, including the soon-to-arrive Navigator of the Seas, use one.

Expanding Terminal 18 would eat up $28.9 million of the estimated expense; the terminal is already undergoing a $4 million renovation to accommodate the Navigator.

Royal Caribbean said the terminal would need to be expanded beyond its current footprint to increase its luggage laydown area and to add elevators and escalators. 

The line recommends expanding into and beyond the terminal's warehouse area to provide a luggage area of 60,000 square feet. Terminal 2, currently the port's largest, has 50,000 square feet of baggage area.

Additionally, Allen said, the line's Genesis ships would require 50 check-in desks, while its largest ships now require 20 to 30. The ships would also require four new bollards, 14 new fenders and general wharf improvements that together would cost about $790,000.

Royal Caribbean also recommended additional space for vehicular traffic and bus parking, and that the port improve its traffic lanes, drop-off area, parking facilities and shuttle services.

Allen stressed that Port Everglades had already proven that it was able to handle the massive number of passengers the Genesis ships would carry; one day last December, the port moved 46,000 people among the port's 12 terminals.

"That's a world record," he said.

Allen added that no other port had the proximity to a major airport that Port Everglades has, with Fort Lauderdale International airport only two miles away.

For its part, Royal Caribbean proposed  that having the world's largest ships at one's homeport would bring with it "bragging rights" and would "elevate the perception of Port Everglades."

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].


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