Barcelona floursihes as major Mediterranean port

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BARCELONA, Spain -- A decade ago, Barcelona's fame was based on the bustling nightlife of its Ramblas pedestrian mall and on the stirring Sagrada Familia, the modern cathedral by the city's architectural genius, Antonio Gaudi.

Barcelona's Cathedral of the Holy Family. More recently, the 2,000-year-old city has added another laurel: cruise capital of the western Mediterranean. As if to symbolize that attainment, the city is building another monument in the heart of its port.

It is the Barcelona World Trade Center, whose cylindrical elegance already is adding a notable marine landmark to the city. The center's facilities are being phased in throughout the year.

The first of two 65,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art cruise terminals that sandwich the World Trade Center was begun last month and is scheduled to open in August. Also planned is another structure of relevance to cruising: a 250-room luxury hotel, expected to open in 2002.

Juan Madrid, port director, disclosed that 16 international hotel companies are bidding to operate the property and that cruise lines are eager to book passengers into the facility. Guests preparing to board cruise ships in the adjoining terminals will be able to walk to their check-in counters while their baggage is delivered to the vessels, said Madrid.

The project is sure to consolidate Barcelona's leadership as a Mediterranean port, the director added. "We are becoming one of the world's best-equipped cruise ports," he said.

As recently as the beginning of this decade, these developments were unpredictable, having been triggered by the 1992 Summer Olympics here. Because hotel space was at a premium during that event, organizers chartered 16 cruise ships as floating hotels, Madrid said.

Berthed in the port for more than four weeks, the string of liners became a focus of the event and put a media spotlight on the port, which is at the doorstep of the city and within view of the city center.

To attract cruise liners after the Olympics, the port invested in six modern terminals even before the latest building project began. The Olympics also have brought the city a modern air terminal, situated less than five miles from the port.

The rest is history: From only 132,000 cruise passengers visiting the city in 1992, the numbers climbed to 466,000 last year, a 30% increase over 1997. Ship calls rose from 220 to 447 in that period.

This year, Barcelona also is unexpectedly benefiting from the diversion of liners from the Adriatic, with some 40 calls having been added due to the war in Yugoslavia. Passengers handled by the port this year are expected to top 600,000, Madrid said.

Barcelona also has seen an increase in ships' doing turnarounds here. Vessels embarking or disembarking passengers in the city are expected to account for two-thirds of this year's traffic, Madrid said. Lines with turnarounds here this summer include Crystal, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Orient, Norwegian, Renaissance, Radisson Seven Seas, Premier, Cunard, Seabourn, Silversea and Windstar.

According to Madrid, a major attraction of Barcelona as a home port is its strategic location, allowing seven-day round-trips to destinations throughout the western Mediteranean, beginning with the Riviera. Seven-day ships also skirt the southern coast of Italy, taking in Civitavecchia (the port for Rome), Sicily and Naples.

Other destinations are available in southern Spain, including Minorca, Majorca, Malaga (for Granada) and Cadiz (for Seville), extending to Tangier and Casablanca in Morocco.

Besides those ports, Barcelona itself is a draw for pre- and post-cruise stays, Madrid said. The city, for example, offers some of Spain's top hotels along with cultural attractions, including two cathedrals and museums devoted to two of the city's native sons, Picasso and Miro.

The port provides a range of facilities for passengers, including duty-free shops, bars and restaurants and foreign exchange offices. To improve shuttle-bus and taxi access to the city center, Madrid said, the port is constructing a bridge and a new entrance to the port, slated for completion in early 2001.

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