Ocean Passenger Vessels: migrating south for the winter

Ocean Passenger Vessels: migrating south for the winter

by Matthew Chambers

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In response to consumer demand, the passenger vessels that operate from seaports along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts alternate between north and south. Passenger vessels that sail out of ports such as New York, Baltimore and Seattle in the summer, lift anchor and steam for departure ports such as Miami, Tampa and Los Angeles, or overseas markets during the cold winter months. This phenomenon has grown in recent years as cruise lines increased the number of "close-to-home" departure ports1 in the north.

Box 1: The Latest Numbers for U.S. Departures

In the 2nd quarter of 2009, the 17 largest passenger vessel operators carried 2.4 million voyagers on 996 voyages. The volume remained essentially unchanged from the same quarter in 2008, when 2.38 million passengers sailed on 993 voyages.

The winter when capacity operates from the southerly ports, is the peak quarter for total passengers boarded. Over the last 5 years, except in 2006, the fourth quarter has been the lowest overall quarter for U.S. cruise passenger departures. See figure 1. In addition to the seasonal shifting of capacity to the south to meet increased demand for warm weather destinations, operators also shift some capacity to southern Europe. Additionally, operators often use the lower volume fourth quarter as a time to put ships into dry dock for maintenance.

North v. South Atlantic, Including Gulf
Departure Ports

On the East Coast of the United States, passenger vessels migrate from northern ports2 to southern departure ports, primarily in Florida, on both the Atlantic3 and Gulf4 Coasts. At the same time, some passenger vessels move from North American to the southern European market where higher fares allow cruise ship operators to generate more revenue than in the North American market.5 Figure 2 shows how cruise departures from ports in northern Atlantic Coast cities move in opposite cycles from port cities in Florida—departures peak in the north when they are low in the south. More specifically, peak season for the Atlantic Ocean ports in the north is third quarter, and the low is first quarter. Atlantic ports in the south and Gulf coast experience the opposite, with their peak in first quarter and a low in the third quarter.

Pacific Northwest v. Pacific Southwest
Departure Ports

On the Pacific coast, passenger vessels migrate from the Pacific Northwest (PNW)6 to the Pacific Southwest (PSW)7 departure ports as well as to overseas markets. Figure 3 shows how PNW and PSW cruise departures move in opposite cycles—departures peak in the PNW when they bottom in the PSW, and vice versa. Peak season for the Pacific Northwest is in the third quarter and the low is in first quarter. The Pacific Southwest has its high in the first quarter and its low in the third quarter.

Scheduled Destinations

Table 1 shows the seasonality in scheduled destinations. Repositioning cruise ships allows lines to offer different destinations seasonally while keeping an average cruise length of 7.2 days.8

Pacific Northwest departure ports support Alaskan cruises. Pacific Southwest ports feature Mexican cruises. Cruises from Northeast ports generally sail to Bermuda and Canada/New England, while Southeast and Gulf departures are en route primarily to Caribbean destinations.

1 Cruise Lines International Association; 2008 Cruise Market Profile Study; available at http://www.cruising.org as of Sept. 25, 2009.

2 North Atlantic includes ports from Eastport, ME, to Baltimore, MD.

3 South Atlantic includes ports from Alexandria, VA, to Miami, FL.

4 Gulf includes ports from Key West, FL, to Brownsville, TX.

5 U.S. Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration; Cruise Statistical Snapshot: 2nd Quarter 2009; available at http://www.marad.dot.gov/ as of Oct. 14, 2009.

6 Pacific Northwest includes U.S. ports from Barrow, AK, to Coos Bay, OR.

7 Pacific Southwest includes ports from Crockett, CA, to San Diego, CA.

8 Business Research and Economic Advisors Study prepared for the Cruise Lines International Association; Executive Summary: The Contribution of the North American Cruise Industry to the U.S Economy in 2007; available at http://www.cruising.org as of Sept. 25, 2009.

About this Report

Matthew Chambers, a Senior Transportation Specialist, in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) prepared this report. BTS is a component of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration. Special thanks to Edwrena Brown, Russ Byington, and Gail Perkins of the Maritime Administration for their assistance.

For related BTS data and publications: www.bts.gov

For questions about this or other BTS reports, call 1-800-853-1351, email answers@bts.gov or visit www.bts.gov.

Data -

Publications -

  • U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics; U.S. Ocean Passenger Terminals: serving larger vessels closer to home and central transit connections; available at http://www.bts.dot.gov/.