TUI starts 2nd year of U.K. tourist flights to Melbourne, adds Port Canaveral cruise ship

Space Coast officials project TUI Airways' United Kingdom holiday travelers will help generate record-shattering passenger traffic this year at Melbourne Orlando International Airport, providing an economic boost during their typical two-week Florida vacations.

Plus, the international travel giant TUI Group is bringing Marella Discovery — an 11-deck cruise ship with seven restaurants and seven bars — to Port Canaveral to launch new weeklong sailings from May to November.

On Monday, the European vacation-package company's first 2023 flights from England to Melbourne are scheduled to land at 1:35 p.m. from Manchester and 3 p.m. from Birmingham.

TUI will operate flights from eight U.K. cities through mid-December, using the Melbourne airport's newly christened $72 million terminal expansion as its Central Florida vacation-package hub.

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“787 Dreamliners that hold about 350 passengers each. So when we’ve got three on the pad, you’re talking about 1,000 passengers. We’re not used to that," Jack Ryals, the airport's senior adviser for local and regional affairs, told a Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization committee on March 15.

"It’s really something that we’ve had to prepare for," Ryals said.

The TUI Group operates 1,200 travel agencies and online portals, five airlines with about 130 aircraft, more than 400 hotels and 16 cruise liners. Last year, TUI moved its Central Florida gateway operations from Orlando Sanford International Airport to Melbourne, per a seven-year contract. Passengers travel from Europe to Florida, not vice versa.

In 2022, the Melbourne airport logged 122,550 enplanements and 119,893 deplanements from TUI passengers, with July and August each accounting for about 20,000 passengers, according to the Space Coast Office of Tourism.

Now, local tourism officials face challenges persuading more of these U.K. travelers to stay on the Space Coast for at least part of their vacation — rather than boarding buses and rental cars and traveling directly to the Orlando area's theme parks and attractions.

The Office of Tourism surveyed a sampling of TUI passengers landing in Melbourne, and found that:

  • Only 10.4% of the passengers surveyed said they stayed on the Space Coast for at least part of their vacation, with many of them staying in a hotel in Cocoa Beach.

  • In comparison, 84.8% spent at least part of their vacation in the Orlando area.

  • Of passengers staying on the Space Cost, 88.2% said they were likely or very likely to return for a visit to the Space Coast.

  • All of the passengers surveyed who stayed on the Space Coast said they were likely or very likely to refer a friend, family member or colleague for a visit to Florida's Space Coast.

  • The typical overall stay for a TUI passenger in Florida was 14 days, with those spending at least part of their vacation on the Space Coast typically spending one to three days here.

  • The Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex and seeing a rocket launch were cited by many of the passengers as a reason to visit the Space Coast.

The fuselage of the first TUI Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Melbourne Orlando International Airport, which landed in March 2022.
The fuselage of the first TUI Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Melbourne Orlando International Airport, which landed in March 2022.

TUI's press office declined an interview request for this story. A TUI executive team and U.K. media are expected to attend an April 30 reception at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, said Greg Donovan, airport executive director.

Marella Cruises, a division of the TUI Group, plans to begin weeklong cruises out of Port Canaveral in May on the Marella Discovery, which has a capacity of 1,830 passengers based on double-occupancy of its cabins.

The ship has 26 sailings scheduled from Port Canaveral, running from May 7 to Nov. 5.

But Space Coast residents won't be able to buy a ticket, according to Port Canaveral officials. The sailings are open only to people who purchase a travel package from TUI that includes flights from the U.K. to Melbourne.

TUI helped the Melbourne airport's total counts of incoming-departing passengers soar from 372,287 in 2021 to 701,257 in 2022. That was an 88% jump.

The airport's all-time record was established in 1990 with 765,723 total passengers. Ryals said airport officials are projecting a record-breaking 850,000 total passengers this year.

Many TUI passengers disembark in Melbourne and board buses bound for Orlando theme parks and attractions. But Ryals said about 60% of TUI passengers rent cars instead.

Indeed, the airport's car rental agencies reported total gross sales of $9.53 million during 2021. That figure more than doubled to $19.78 million last year as TUI made its Melbourne debut.

“They stop and get gas before they come back. They eat in restaurants. They go to the zoo. They go to the Space Center. Great economic impact on our area,” Ryals told the Space Coast TPO committee.

In the future, Ryals said TUI can develop Brevard County-oriented travel packages that provide European tourists a peaceful alternative: "You cannot spend two weeks at the (Orlando) theme parks without going nuts when you have a small family."

Passengers from Manchester, England, navigate the Melbourne Orlando International Airport after deplaning TUI's inaugural flight in March 2022.
Passengers from Manchester, England, navigate the Melbourne Orlando International Airport after deplaning TUI's inaugural flight in March 2022.

On March 10, airport officials unveiled the Jack L. Ryals Welcome Center a short walk from the domestic and international baggage claims. The facility will serve as the starting point for TUI passengers' Florida vacations, as it houses support services, rental car desks and a ground-transportation depot.

Ryals addressed TUI's potential long-term economic ramifications for the Space Coast in an essay in the book "Melbourne Orlando International Airport: A History from 1928 to 2022" by Melbourne Airport Authority Chairman William Potter.

"History in areas such as Fort Myers and Sarasota would indicate that eventually tourism from a particular country generates the sale of real estate and a demand for second homes in Florida," Ryals wrote.

"TUI was a tremendous win for our area for many reasons," he wrote.

Rick Neale is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or Twitter: @RickNeale1

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: TUI starts second year of Melbourne flights, adds Port Canaveral ship