MIAMI -- Just last November, PortMiami was bustling with construction workers bringing to life five new cruise terminals and two cruise company headquarters. Future cruise business was all but guaranteed: Fiscal year 2020 was set to break the port's 2019 record of 6.8 million passengers, up 22% from 2018.
The county agreed to pay $700 million toward the projects, and the cruise companies -- Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises and Virgin Voyages -- agreed to repay the county $5.8 billion over the next 20 to 62 years.
In November, port director Juan Kuryla described the deals as "ironclad." When asked by the Herald what would happen to the promised return on investment if for some reason cruise ships were only half full or if the ships did not to come to Miami at all, Kuryla said the companies would still be on the hook for the funds.
"They're still committed to pay," he said.
Since then, the COVID crisis has roiled the seas.
While some terminal construction has continued amid the pandemic, much of the $7 billion passenger cruise economy associated with PortMiami is drydocked, as is the $2 billion the industry generates at Port Everglades. The industry halted cruises in mid-March, and most companies have canceled sailings through mid-September. At least one-fourth of the ocean-going fleet has experienced COVID-19 outbreaks resulting in at least 82 deaths among passengers and crew, a Miami Herald investigation has found.
As a result, the passenger fees that fund much of PortMiami's unprecedented development -- $105 million in 2019 -- have dried up. Many of the 60,000-plus South Florida residents who work directly and indirectly for the cruise industry have seen their salaries cut or their jobs disappear entirely, a loss of $303 million in income per month, according to an analysis by the Florida International University Jorge M. Perez Metropolitan Center. Those who shuttle cruise passengers to the port, feed crew members, and move luggage on and off the ships are dipping into their savings to survive.
The port itself hasn't had to dip into reserves, Kuryla said, thanks to continued business on the cargo side -- estimated at about $35 billion -- and cost cutting measures like ending cruise company marketing incentives and leaving county positions unfilled. Mayor Carlos Gimenez has waived berthing fees -- totaling around $8 million from mid-March through mid-June -- to support for the industry.
"We're with the cruise lines in the good times," Gimenez said in March. "And we're going to be with them in the bad times."
Kuryla now has to consider a once-unthinkable scenario where cruising remains banned indefinitely. If that were to happen, he said, PortMiami would exhaust half of its reserves by the end of 2021 before the county would consider a new operating model, possibly pivoting to more cargo and halting the construction projects.