Updated September 21, 2017
Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, warm breezes off the Pacific Ocean, a few days in L.A. -- what's not to love about cruising from California? While the region suffered a setback early in the decade, cruise lines have returned, and not only that, the demand for a more robust cruise market in California has kept the ports on their toes.
Major terminal renovations to Long Beach by Carnival shows good faith. San Francisco is planning to infuse art, retail therapy and some food options into terminal facilities to bolster the port experience for passengers. For San Diego's 2017/2018 season, Disney Cruise Line has increased homeport calls to 18 cruises.
So is California "back" to being a true cruising contender? It's tough to say there will never be another repeat of 2010 to 2012 when many cruise ships left the state because of tough economic times and concerns of violence in Mexico. But based on interviews with port officials and looking at where cruise lines are currently sending their ships, California is by all means making a return -- one that might not draw dramatic passenger counts just yet, but should remain rock steady for at least a few seasons.
Here are five signs that cruising is making a comeback in California.
1. Major cruise brands are showing up.
The cruise business, for better or worse, is dictated by the cruise lines, and looking at the 2017 season in California, they are well represented.
Most if not all major cruise brands -- including umbrella organizations Carnival Corp., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited -- are represented across Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Using Cruise Critic's Find a Cruise tool, we found nearly 160 cruises departing from the state of California from January to December 2017.
Eleven cruise lines and 24 ships will sail from the Port of Los Angeles (San Pedro) this year; the Port of San Francisco expects 14 cruise lines and 28 cruise ships, plus 82 ship calls totaling 300,000 passengers. San Diego's season, typically September to May, will see 90 vessels call, with four homeported cruise lines: Holland America Line, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises, and visiting ships from nine other cruise lines.
2. No alarms and no surprises.
When asked how 2016 measured up, every port interviewed gave a comforting, if not exciting response: "2016 went as expected."
In this region, where unpleasant headlines in Mexico dominated the news in the early part of the decade, that's good news.
According to Michael Nerney, maritime marketing manager for the Port of San Francisco, "[The] Port of San Francisco cruise business has been steady the past two years, since opening of the new Pier 27 cruise terminal. We expect to maintain current levels of ship calls and passengers with potential incremental growth. The 2016 cruise season was as expected: 80 calls and 290,000 passengers."
Further down the coast, the "Port of [Los Angeles] San Pedro finished where we expected for 2016 and 2017 looks very similar…By the look of things, 2018 will remain similar to 2017 at this point," Phillip Sanfield, director of media relations for the Port of Los Angeles, told Cruise Critic.
"In 2008, which was our most successful cruise year, we had 279 cruise calls," said Marguerite Elicone, a marketing and public relations representative for the Port of San Diego. "After the recession, the numbers dropped dramatically. We are now seeing the numbers slowly climbing back and predict a steady growth rate in passengers of about 6 to 8 percent ... this year's number of cruise calls is up by 30 percent (to 90 calls total in 2017) and the port is confident that the number will increase each year."
3. When construction is complete in 2017, Long Beach will be one of Carnival's largest homeports.
And that's saying something. Carnival Cruise Line ships homeport in 15 U.S. cities, and are widely considered a great drive-to option for that reason. When expansion of the Long Beach cruise terminal outside Los Angeles is complete in 2017, the current facilities will expand from around 66,000 square feet to 142,000 square feet, more than doubling its initial size. Carnival is the only cruise line that homeports in Long Beach.
Part of the issues with Long Beach in the past centered on the limitations of the port structure, which occupies a portion of a geodesic dome that once housed Howard Hughes' historic Spruce Goose plane.
"Our embarkation/debarkation operations in Long Beach were not as guest friendly and efficient as they could be based on the constraints imposed by space limitations with the geodesic dome," Jennifer de la Cruz, vice president of corporate communications for Carnival Cruise Line, told Cruise Critic. "We've had a desire for a long time to expand our footprint within the dome to enable the improvement of the guest experience and also allow us to bring larger ships into Long Beach."
Carnival currently has three ships homeported year-round in Long Beach (Miracle, Inspiration and Imagination); just over 12 percent of its fleet. With the addition of Carnival Splendor in 2018, the line will carry upward of 700,000 passengers annually from Long Beach on nearly 250 voyages ranging from three to 14 days in length. "The capacity increase via Carnival Splendor moving to Long Beach is based on strong demand for that program and the cruise terminal operational improvements we will gain from having full use of the geodesic dome," said de la Cruz.
If that wasn't enough of an investment, Carnival plans to improve infrastructure in order to welcome mega-ships down the line. "We are also expanding shore power capability to accommodate Carnival Splendor and potentially larger ships in the future," de la Cruz said.
4. The Mexican Riviera is on the rebound.
Once the reason why cruise ships were being pulled from California, the ports along the Mexican Riviera now have improved safety, desirability and demand.
Carnival's move to reposition Splendor in Long Beach, according to the line, comes from that demand. "Based on the particularly strong popularity of our weeklong Mexican Riviera cruises, we had a desire to increase capacity on that program," de la Cruz said. "As a result, we are moving Carnival Splendor to Long Beach in January 2018 to take over the weeklong Mexican Riviera cruises currently operated on Carnival Miracle. That will represent a capacity increase of 41 percent on that program."
(If a bigger ship on its own isn't convincing, Carrie Underwood will be performing as part of the line's Carnival Live! concert series on a Baja Mexico itinerary out of L.A.)
"The Mexico product is rebounding and it will continue to do so," Sanfield of the Port of Los Angeles said. "The climate in Mexico has improved and the ability for a large population to access warm water year-round contributes to a continued interest in our market."
Likewise, sailings to the Mexican Riviera make up most of the cruise itineraries departing from San Diego. "As tourism continues to grow in Mexico on both the land and water sides, the Port of San Diego can expect to see a positive effect on the number of Mexico sailings," said Elicone for the Port of San Diego.
5. Domestic destination interest is on the rise.
Apart from its stake in the Mexican Riviera (California cruising's bread and butter), the West Coast accommodates itineraries to Hawaii, Alaska and along the Pacific Coast -- all places that stay within the confines of the U.S. With international unease, particularly in Europe, American travelers are opting for vacations closer to home. California's cruise market serves them well, with sailings to the most exotic of the 50 states -- Alaska and Hawaii -- and scenic sweeps of the Golden State.
Princess Cruises offers a couple of Alaska cruises round trip from the Port of Los Angeles. Itinerary options that remain from San Francisco include Alaska, coastal California, Mexico and Hawaii, ranging in duration from a week to 15 days. California homeports also serve as ports of call for transcanal and world cruises.
It helps that the sunny cities by the sea draw large amounts of land-based tourists each year, providing built-in pre- and post-cruise options for cruisers who might have traveled to California to sail.
Adjacent to the Pier 27 Cruise Terminal in San Francisco, the Pier 29 Bulkhead Building is being developed as a retail facility "offering sales of arts and crafts, cultural and exhibit space, and food service," said Nerney for the Port of San Francisco.
Much like the construction to Carnival's facility, the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro will look to expand its terminals "as the business warrants additional or expanded facilities," Sanfield said.
From Carnival in Long Beach to luxury lines like Regent or Seabourn, if they bring cruise ships, passengers will come.