- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2004

NEW YORK — For Dianna Nachamkin, an 11-day cruise on calm Caribbean waters was not enough to wash away the memory of her unpleasant departure from a New York City port.

“It was terrible, horrific. The ice was a problem, and they didn’t clean the pier,” says Miss Nachamkin, of Albany, N.Y., who spent three hours in a cold waiting room with limited seats and one bare-bones concession stand before she could board.

As a gateway to the seas, Manhattan’s West Side passenger-ship terminal has long been a source of consternation among passengers and cruise-line operators. They have complained about the drab, crowded waiting rooms and inadequate infrastructure, which can lead to congestion and confusion as people try to navigate through the terminal.

The conditions became such a problem that Royal Caribbean, a leading cruise company, announced in December that it would decamp most of its ships to Bayonne, N.J., a move that appears to have roused New York City officials.

“It certainly was a wake-up call,” says Kate Ascher, executive vice president of the city’s Economic Development Corp.

Since Royal Caribbean’s announcement, the city has been trying to reaffirm its commitment to the cruise industry, whose strong growth has helped buoy the local economy through tough times. The industry contributed $800 million to the economy last year as more than 887,000 passengers embarked from the West Side, up from 425,000 a decade ago.

A few weeks after Royal Caribbean caught the city unawares, the city unveiled plans for a $50 million face-lift of the piers between West 47th and West 53rd streets — including new stairways, escalators and elevators; new signs to direct passengers; and more taxi stands to relieve congestion.

Miss Ascher says the city also hopes to undertake more far-reaching plans, including a $20 million interim terminal at Pier 7 in Brooklyn, which would provide docking space while the West Side piers are renovated.

An even grander master plan may come by spring, Miss Ascher says. That would include reducing the number of berths on the West Side from five to three or four — making more room for passenger accommodations — and turning Pier 7 into a permanent port of entry with two or three berths big enough to accommodate massive ships.

Such improvements couldn’t come soon enough for cruise operators, who have grown frustrated by what they see as the city’s sluggishness in upgrading the piers to support growing demand.

Giora Israel, vice president for strategic planning for Carnival Corp., the largest operator in the world, calls the city’s initial $50 million plan “barely scratching the surface. … You won’t see a lot of bang for the money.”

Mr. Israel says his company estimated it would cost up to $200 million to bring the West Side piers up to par and another $110 million to $120 million to build a new two-berth terminal in Brooklyn to accommodate ships such as Carnival’s Queen Mary 2.

That ship, the world’s largest and most expensive, had to get a temporary exemption from the Coast Guard to extend 132 feet beyond the West Side pier into the Hudson. The exemption is good for 18 months; Mr. Israel says his company needs a more permanent solution.

“I don’t want to say we’re going to leave New York — our business is growing,” Mr. Israel says, “but necessity is the mother of invention.”

Necessity is here.

“After 9/11, people were more reluctant to fly,” says Brian Major, spokesman for Cruise Lines International Association, a trade organization. “The ship companies are responding.”

Over the past five years, the industry has added 62 ships and dozens of routes that enable passengers to embark from cities including Baltimore, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles and New York.

Nearly everyone agrees that the West Side facility, built in the 1930s and last renovated in the 1970s, can no longer handle the number of passengers entering and leaving New York. The crowded terminals are poorly air-conditioned in the summer and inadequately heated in the winter.

“It’s classic New York. The same pier has been here for decades, and they don’t do anything with it,” says passenger Ted Moody, as he waits for his ride home to Danbury, Conn. “When you compare it to Miami, there’s no comparison.”

The problems got so bad that Royal Caribbean transferred three of its four cruise ships out of New York. The company relocated the Horizon, a 1,500-passenger ship, to Philadelphia and then dropped the bomb that the Nordic Empress and the massive Voyager of the Seas, a 3,000-passenger liner, were headed to Bayonne for an indefinite period.

“We had several dates when we needed the space to turn around a ship with 3,500 people leaving and 3,500 coming on board. We weren’t able to get the necessary commitments for the space,” says Adam Goldstein, executive vice president for Royal Caribbean. “We had to start looking for alternatives.”

When Royal Caribbean began talking with the officials in Bayonne, Mr. Goldstein says, the conversation progressed smoothly. Whatever sacrifices leaving Manhattan entailed would be offset by the large space and up-to-date facilities Bayonne offered, Royal Caribbean found.

“Bayonne has the berth to handle the biggest ships, and that led to a conversation that was rapid and mutually beneficial,” Mr. Goldstein says. “We really appreciate how Bayonne has seized this opportunity.”

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