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Cruise lines flee Southern California ports

San Diego Replaces Stops In Mexico For Many Cruise Lines
Cruise ships sit docked at the San Diego Cruise ship Terminal.Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Carnival Cruise Lines is pulling the last of its ships out of San Diego, and other cruise operators are departing Southern California because of economic woes and fears over traveling to Mexico.

Carnival announced Thursday that its 2,500-passenger Carnival Spirit is moving to Australia by April 2012, a move the Port of San Diego says will cost the local economy about $54 million, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The ship takes more than 60,000 passengers a year to destinations along the Mexican Riviera.

The Los Angeles Times says Royal Caribbean's 3,100-passenger Mariner of the Seas is leaving on its final voyage from the Port of Los Angeles on Sunday. After a tour of South America, it will end up at its new home base of Galveston, Texas, the Times said. And the 2,348-passenger Norwegian Star will leave L.A. in May for Tampa, Fla.

The two boats carried nearly half of the business of the Port of Los Angeles in 2009.

The cruise industry is seeing signs of recovery in Florida and elsewhere, but persistent drug-related violence has meant fading interest in cruises to Mexico, the chief destination of California-based ships.

Mexican authorities last weekend discovered the bodies of at least 30 new victims, 15 beheaded, in Acapulco.

While the cruise industry saw a rebound elsewhere in 2010, the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego together saw business dip.

"We are struggling with our many ships to Mexico," said Chris Chase, marketing director for the Port of Los Angeles, told the Times. "It's the economy and the news of drug wars down there."

At its peak in 2008, 255 ships docked at the Embarcadero in San Diego, but that number is expected to fall to 103 this year, the Union-Tribune said. By 2013, the number of cruise ship calls could be as few as 76.

Last spring, Carnival relocated the Elation to Mobile, Ala., from San Diego.

“Our decision to deploy the Carnival Spirit to Australia was based on the weaker relative financial performance for our San Diego program at present,” said Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen. “Only about 1.5 percent of Australians have ever taken a cruise, meaning that there is huge potential for growth.”

Holland America, a division of Carnival's parent company, will still operate cruise liners to Mexico, Hawaii, Panama Canal and South America from San Diego.

"What we need is a better economy — so does everybody — and a better product in Mexico," Rita Vandergaw, director of marketing for the Port of San Diego, told City News Service.

In the first six months of 2010 just 187 cruises docked in Mexican ports, compared to 290 in the same period in 2008, the Times said.

Port officials and the travel industry have tried to emphasize the minimal danger to tourists in Mexico, pointing out that most of the violence in Mexico takes place far from cruise destinations, but that message has a hard time competing with images of beheaded bodies on the news.

Terry Thornton, a senior vice president at Carnival, said in a statement that business in Mexico was being "negatively affected by the highly publicized incidents of violent crime. Fortunately, these incidents have really not been focused at tourists."

Others point out the constant cycles that come with the oceanic travel business, and believe the slump is temporary.

"We are definitely down, but we've been down before," Vandergaw told the Times. "For me this is a cyclical change. I'm optimistic it will turn around."