Sail Away

Port NOLA cruise numbers rebounding
Jennifer
Illustration by Paddy Mills

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home.


Many New Orleanians go weeks at a time without viewing the Mississippi River. But she’s out there, rising and falling, and a continued source of economic prosperity for our region. The Port of New Orleans (Port NOLA) stewards that prosperity with cargo, of course, and also as the sixth-largest cruise port in the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the cruise industry. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), passenger embarkations dropped 81% in 2020. In CLIA’s 2022 State of the Cruise Industry Report, however, it projected passenger volumes to surpass 2019 levels by the end of 2023 and recover in excess of 12% above 2019 levels by the end of 2026. Port NOLA is on a similar path to recovery.

As of early December, Port NOLA forecasted 285 sailings during the 2022 calendar year and near pre-pandemic passenger levels. In 2019, it had a record-breaking 1.2 million cruise passengers, and in fiscal year 2023 (ending in June), it anticipates increasing to 1.4 million passengers.

Correspondingly, revenues are on track with the rebound,and Port NOLA is projecting it will meet its fiscal year 2023 cruise budget of $15 million with its schedule of five homeported ocean-going vessels, nine riverine vessels and additional port of call vessels.

A major addition came to fruition in 2022 with the first North American homeporting of Viking Cruise Line at Port NOLA, after first announcing its selection of New Orleans in 2015.

“The fact that Viking Cruise Line chose the Port of New Orleans for its first North American river cruise itineraries speaks volumes about New Orleans as an in-demand homeport and as a destination itself for both international and domestic leisure travelers,” said Kimberly Curth, press secretary at Port NOLA. “We are thrilled to add a global brand like Viking to our growing river cruise portfolio that fuels the Louisiana tourism sector up and down the Mississippi River.”

Port NOLA is also served by riverine cruise vessels operated by American Cruise Lines and American Queen Steamboat Company.

Growth in the ocean-growing cruise market is also anticipated in 2023. Disney Cruise Line doubled its itineraries from Port NOLA, and there will be 14 sailings aboard the Disney Magic from February-April 2023. Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International have also renewed their commitments to Port NOLA.

“We value our long-term relationships with our cruise line partners, and we want to thank them for their partnership and their leadership. The cruise industry is back, and it’s back stronger than ever, thanks to the tremendous re-commitment to the Louisiana cruise market by our cruise line partners,” said Curth. “We would not be here today without the cruise line’s initiative in enacting policies and protocols that exceed requirements for the health and safety of guests, crew and community. And they continue to do so today.”

Port NOLA works closely with economic development partners such as New Orleans & Company and the Louisiana Lieutenant Governor’s office to promote the cruise industry, and for good reason. According to Curth, 98% of ship calls are homeports, and those ships take on provisions, fueling, maintenance and business services from local companies.

About 90% of cruise guests travel from out of state, and because 73% of those passengers spend a day or two in New Orleans before or after their cruise, they contribute more than 306,000 room nights in New Orleans-area hotels annually since. Cruise passengers support airport growth as well. Approximately 32% of cruise passengers fly through Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which helps drive demand for new direct air services.

“Port NOLA’s cruise business is a vital economic engine that contributes to the local tourism and hospitality industry. Every time a cruise ship docks at Erato or Julia Street, it’s like a mini convention pulling into town. All this activity creates jobs and injects money into the local and state economy,” said Curth.

Some argue the cruise industry has too large a negative impact on the environment, so the industry is working to innovate worldwide to reduce its footprint. CLIA is organizing its cruise line members to invest in new technology, and they are pursuing net carbon zero by 2050. Port NOLA has been a member of Green Marine since 2015, a North American environmental certification program, and is also working with cruise lines.

“Sustainability in the maritime sector is advancing at a rapid pace,” said Curth. “Many new fuel technologies are becoming available and being investigated as diesel alternatives, and ship access to shore-power electricity is increasing. Cruise lines that homeport in New Orleans have committed to reducing their environmental impacts and improving their efforts for sustainability.”