SAN DIEGO – Down by 40 calls from one of the top cruise seasons ever when there were 140 calls for cruise ships during 2022-23, overseas trips by ship are still big business in San Diego.
San Diego is the third busiest cruise port in the state, behind Long Beach and Los Angeles, according to the Port of San Diego, which champions the 34 miles of San Diego Bay waterfront along the cities of Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City and San Diego.
San Diego is also the gateway to the Mexican Riviera, one of the most popular cruise spots, as well as the way to get to other destinations, including Hawaii, the Panama Canal and the Pacific Coast.
The Port of San Diego is doing well with 100 calls scheduled this season (2023-24) and is expecting about 338,000 passengers — better than the nine seasons prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In part because ports in Japan and Australia were slower to reopen, the Port of San Diego’s three berths experienced a significant rebound last season (which runs roughly from September through May) — its busiest in about a decade.
Adam Deaton, cruise business manager at the Port of San Diego, said San Diego is expected to match or surpass the number of calls and passengers prior to the pandemic, and that toward the 2025-26 season, the Port anticipates numbers will further increase as new ships come online.
“I see us getting back to where we were pre-pandemic,” Deaton said. “We saw a huge surge the level of business we hadn’t seen since probably 2011. The world is starting to open up so we’ll see a little dip next season but (cruise companies) will have more ships coming back online. Disney, one of our big customers, have said that San Diego is a very important cruise home port for them so we foresee us improving the season after next.”
The regional economic impact of the cruise industry is nearly $20 million, the Port says. While that’s not as big as some of its other endeavors – the tourism and commercial industry brings $6.7 billion, the industrial and wholesale industry $2.1 billion, Port enterprise $372 million and maritime trade and cargo handling $64 million — it is still an important part of the Port’s overall vision for the region.
The Port’s Economic Impact Report from 2017 also said that looking at visitations only, the cruise industry’s regional economic impact is about $600,000.
“It’s not a big profitable business for the Port of San Diego,” Deaton said. “We pretty much break even on it but the reason we really do it as a public agency is because of its economic impact for the local businesses and those employees that work for those local businesses.”
The Port’s cruise industry supports tourism and maritime jobs including retail, restaurant, lodging, entertainment, excursions and events; transportation, including trains, taxis, buses, airlines and shuttles, plus trucking and warehousing; ship agents and stevedoring (dockworkers who load and unload ships); and security and manpower services.
World Cruise Launches in February
All the positives about cruising in San Diego are reasons behind why Crystal, formerly known as Crystal Cruises has brought its world cruise to San Diego.
Now under the Illinois-based Abercrombie & Kent Travel Group umbrella, Crystal is making its debut in San Diego and setting sail on the brand’s first world cruise since 2019 aboard the 377-guest room Crystal Serenity ship in February.
It will be the first time Crystal has departed from San Diego since relaunching. Crystal expects to continue to add new voyages and departures in the coming years as the brand expands.
The 141-night voyage leaving Feb. 3 is Crystal’s first world cruise since the pandemic and follows the more than $150 million refurbishment of its cruise ships, the Serenity and Crystal Symphony.
Over the course of the cruise, the journey will visit 30 countries and 62 destinations, including Tahiti, Sydney, Auckland, Sri Lanka, Mykonos, Naples, Gibraltar, Bali, Mumbai, Cyprus, Saint Tropez and Barcelona. It returns to San Diego June 24. Fares start at $68,800 per guest with the penthouse suite priced at $245,600 per guest, according to the Crystal website.
Rise in Cruise Travel
Nancy Iovino, Crystal’s Southern California sales director, said that since the pandemic, there’s been a clear rise in cruise travel around the globe.
“Crystal’s decision to set sail in San Diego meets the growing demand for more West Coast cruises,” she said. “San Diego, Los Angeles, and Long Beach are Southern California’s top port cities, and the Crystal brand continues to lean into these strong cruise markets and ports and those most accessible for U.S. travelers.”
Adam Martindale of Martindale Travel and Tours and a Cruise Planners independent franchise owner, echoes Iovino’s words.
“The state of cruising is very strong,” Martindale said. “Bookings are through the roof. The cruise lines are all struggling with crew training and hiring after the pandemic and increased demand for sure. For luxury cruise lines, which are my specialty, you must book much further out now as ships are filling up quickly, especially for the most desirable suites.”
Iovino said that over the past few years, the cruising industry has made a strong comeback after much pent-up demand, it has resulted in guest offerings becoming more expansive, modern and trend-focused while still maintaining a strong sense of tradition.
“Travelers have been looking for the ultimate ‘bucket list experiences, both on and off the ship, and cruise lines continue to deliver exciting new programming and excursions for guests,” Iovino said.
She said that for Crystal specifically, guests have been quick to back the brand under A&K.
Iovino said San Diego and Southern California overall is a key market for the brand, and the company aims to showcase its onboard offerings and service through more previewed experiences, tours and embarkments in and from the region.
Vanessa Pacheco, executive assistant to Martindale, and an independent agent of cruise planners, said a world cruise is atypical for San Diego – in the best way.
“I think it is amazing that a world cruise is embarking from San Diego,” Pacheco said. “World cruises offer a more intensive experience for the seasoned traveler, but also pose the intrigue for new cruisers to dip their toes into the cruising world. San Diego is not a common embarkation port for this type of cruise, and I think it is fabulous not only to highlight the city and gorgeous port but to also highlight cruising in Southern California.”
Port of San Diego
CEO: Randa Coniglio (acting)
HEADQUARTERS: Pacific Highway, San Diego
BUSINESS: Special District
REVENUE: $200 million
SOCIAL IMPACT: Stated Port of San Diego’s promise is to “Enrich the relationship people and businesses have with the dynamic waterfront of San Diego Bay, providing prosperity and a more remarkable way of life.”
NOTABLE: The Port of San Diego supports more than 64,000 jobs and has a $9.2 billion regional impact in San Diego County, including $20 million in the cruise industry.