BALTIMORE -- Baltimore may call itself "the city that reads," but Carnival Cruise Lines is trying to make it the city that cruises.
The 2,124-passenger Carnival Pride sailed into the harbor here on April 27, launching the city's first year-round cruise program.
The presence of Maryland's political elite at a reception onboard the Pride demonstrated how much this ship, and the 1,500 jobs and $152 million it is expected to contribute to the local economy, means to this town.
"Those jobs were going to go somewhere; those cruises were going to take off from somewhere," said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. "I'm glad it's Baltimore."
Also onboard were Sen. Benjamin Cardin and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Baltimore is quickly growing as a prominent East Coast cruise port: It will be joined in June 2010 by Royal Caribbean's 2,252-passenger Enchantment of Seas, which will also begin a year-round cruise program from Baltimore.
At the Pride event, the biggest smile among attendees might have belonged to Carnival's director of business development for Maryland and Delaware, Tom Dougher, who began the campaign to bring a ship here almost 10 years ago.
Dougher has always argued that Baltimore was ideally situated within driving distance of millions of people and offers a smoother ride to the Caribbean than New York.
"The demand is here; the agents are behind it," he said. "They kept telling me, 'We need a ship,' and every time I heard it, I'd pass it along."
Many of those agents were on hand to greet the ship they'd lobbied for.
"People have been asking and begging, 'When is Carnival coming back?'" said Paula Dozier of DTS Midway Vacations in Pikesville, Md. "We can sell this ship year-round."
Dozier said that people in this region, especially in the current economy, would appreciate Carnival's pricing structure.
"Some people here are doing staycations, but you would spend more taking your family to an amusement park for the weekend than taking a Carnival cruise," she said. "This is normally a very slow time. Carnival has made us busy."
"It's long overdue," said Mark Jacobs of the Cruise Line Ltd. agency in North Potomac, Md. "This is a huge market. It captures the whole Mid-Atlantic."
Hearing all the homeport virtues Baltimore offered, it was curious that it took so long for Baltimore to get a ship committed year-round.
"Baltimore was not recognized as a serious cruise port," said John Meister, manager of Cruise Marketing for the Maryland Port Administration. But he pointed out that Baltimore is closer to Buffalo than New York is and closer to Pittsburgh than Philadelphia is.
"When you look at the demographics, and the terminal we have, everything comes together, and it made sense to be here."