While Charleston and many Florida cities are well-known for being popular ports of call for cruise lines, few people realize that Wilmington hosts a few ships a year coming into port along the Cape Fear River.
For more than 20 years, Wilmington has been a stop on the American Cruise Lines small ship cruises through rivers on the East Coast. The East Coast Inland Passage Cruise stops in Wilmington usually twice a year, sometimes with a third stop for an additional small cruise.
The cruise embarks from Baltimore, Maryland, stops at St. Michaels, Maryland, along the Chesapeake Bay before making its way to Norfolk, Virginia, then Kitty Hawk. Next on the itinerary is Beaufort and Morehead City before making its way on the sixth day to Wilmington.
According to the American Cruise Lines website, cruisers visiting Wilmington, “explore this charming city on foot, led by a local guide. Along the way, admire antebellum-style homes restored to their original grandeur and magnificent gardens.”
Later, they can “stop at Airlie Gardens, which dates back to 1884, and explore … spectacular gardens, seasonal blooms, mighty live oaks, walking trails, and historic structures, including a seasonal butterfly house. Next visit the pristine Wrightsville Beach and enjoy picturesque seaside views.”
It depends on the availability of dock space where these cruise ships, typically holding 90 to 100 passengers, drop anchor. According to Connie Nelson, spokeswoman for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, that may be at Front and Market, at the Hotel Ballast Marina or at the Port City Marina.
Once they disembark from Wilmington, the cruise sails to Charleston, Beaufort and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, then continues to Savannah, St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island, Georgia before making their way to Florida in Fernandina Beach, then their final stop in Amelia Island.
Each stop reaps the benefits of the passengers exploring what they have to offer. Nelson said according to the Cruise Line Industry Association, the average passenger spends $100 in each port visited.
“We’re not a city that sits right on the ocean, so we are not going to get the big Carnival-type ships that go through Charleston, but we do get these custom tours based on history for ports along a river,” Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington and Beaches CVB.
The CVB works closely with the cruise line to provide it with visitor information and make sure passengers have user guides and maps of downtown Wilmington.
Another aspect of these cruise lines giving passengers a chance to see Wilmington is that according to key findings in the 2022 State of the Cruise Industry, “overall, 6 in 10 people who have taken a cruise say that they have returned to a destination that they first visited via cruise ship.”
Passengers get a taste of Wilmington and often decide return.
“We see all indications of a strong summer season again. All our accommodation partners feel confident in that. Leisure is our business. Meetings and conventions are a small part of what we do in comparison to leisure,” Hufham said. “Not only hotels, but bed and breakfasts, VRBOs, Airbnbs and vacation rentals down at the beach are an increasingly strong part of the market.”
Nelson said many of the local businesses downtown are seeing “an overwhelming number of customers for the concerts, traveling from everywhere.”
Nelson and Hufham said the Live Oak Bank Pavilion, as well as conventions, also bring guests who decide it’s a place that they would like to visit to again.
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