Shall We Cruise?
In the midst of what is already a record-breaking winter, the Port of New Orleans points its bow toward the future.
Even in muggy Louisiana, winter finds a way. It chills. It frosts. It forces a statewide hibernation.
So venture down to the Port of New Orleans, pick your ocean liner, and cruise away to sunshine and freedom. You won’t be alone. Prime season for cruise lines is recognized as November through April.
In its 2014 U.S. Editors’ Picks, review site Cruise Critic (which boasts 3 million readers – the largest community of cruise-goers in the world) named New Orleans its “Best North American Homeport.” Porthole Cruise Magazine also extended accolades, bestowing the city with its “Friendliest Homeport” honors in its 2014 Editor-in-Chief Awards.
This recent recognition for New Orleans accompanies overall growth in the cruise industry. Though the 2008 economic crisis prompted many budget-conscious travelers to opt for “staycations,” a 2013 Business Research and Economic Advisors study prepared for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) shows a promising rebound since 2010, with ships becoming increasingly larger and more numerous.
The Port of New Orleans’ 2014-2015 winter cruise season welcomed 33,000 passengers through the riverfront terminals in the first weekend – a record for the port. Among the six ships arriving to the city within the first five days, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Dawn and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Serenade of the Seas embarked on their seasonal itineraries from the Julia Street Terminal November 21 and 22. Each will sail seven-day itineraries until April.
Year-round ships came calling as well. Issued from Carnival Cruise Lines, the Carnival Elation and Carnival Dream continued their own itineraries at the Erato Street Terminal.
And still the riverfront finds room for smaller vessels, with ships from The Great American Steamboat Co., American Cruise Lines, Travel Dynamics International, and Blount Small Ship Adventures, offering tours on the Mississippi River, as well as along the Gulf Coast.
A Big, Easy Choice
Whether departing or arriving, cruise passengers have taken special note of New Orleans, not just for brief shore excursions, but as a destination itself. The 2013 CLIA study found that 60 percent of the city’s visiting cruise passengers spend an average of two nights in New Orleans either before or after their scheduled cruises, indulging in the city’s many attractions and amenities.
“We sell it as two vacations in one,” says Port President and CEO Gary LaGrange. In a prepared statement, he added: “Come for the cuisine, live music and museums and then [embark] on a great Caribbean cruise.”
New Orleans’ local economy benefits from the curious travelers too. The 2013 study showed that cruise passengers and crew spent $78.4 million while enjoying the city in 2012; $27.5 million went toward lodging expenses and $8.3 million toward food and beverage.
“The average cruise passenger will spend about $95 a day out of pocket,” says LaGrange. “When they come to New Orleans, they spend $332 a day. They’re having fun.”
Terry Thornton, senior vice president of Carnival Cruise Lines, cites New Orleans’ central location in the South as another reason for the port’s popularity.
“It’s got great population bases within a relatively short distance,” says Thornton, “only about five or so hours away.” Another plus, he says, is the Southern hospitality. “We get such great support from Gary LaGrange and his team. I can’t say enough nice things.”
The Port of New Orleans is the sixth largest port in the country. In 2013, cruise operators spent an estimated $406 million in Louisiana, and the industry generated 8,129 jobs.
Norwegian Renews its Contract
In December 2014, the Port of New Orleans renewed a successful relationship with Norwegian Cruise Line. Preceding the announcement, the Norwegian Dawn launched from the Port of New Orleans Nov. 21. The ship makes Caribbean voyages throughout the winter, a popular vacation choice as the temperatures dip.
The Norwegian Dawn holds 2,340 passengers and offers a variety of entertainment to each vacationer, with a fitness center and spa, pools, a casino, 12 lounges and bars, and 14 dining options. Guests can choose from Brazilian steakhouse Moderno, authentic Italian at La Cucina, the ship’s main dining room, The Venetian, or a late-night snack at the 24-hour food court, among a dozen other options.
The range of accommodations befits the single nomad, the sprawling family, and every traveler and budget in between. The Norwegian Dawn sails to Cozumel, Mexico; Belize City, Belize; Roatan Bay Islands, Honduras; and Costa Maya, Mexico.
Norwegian Cruise Line has sailed from New Orleans since 2003, previously channeling its Norwegian Jewel through the port. The new contract extends until 2018—with one-year options available up to 2021.
Norwegian Cruise Lines renewed its contract with the port December 2014. The new contract extends until 2018.
Carnival Goes Big
Carnival Cruise Lines has expanded its local investment as well. In fact, the July 2014 contract overlaps with a three-year extension signed in 2013. The latest agreement keeps at least two Carnival ships sailing in and out of New Orleans until 2019, with the possibility to renew until 2022.
The line currently operates two ships out of New Orleans – the Dream and Elation – and annually brings over 400,000 passengers through the Port. In April 2014, the Carnival Dream became the Port of New Orleans’ largest ship, with room for 3,646 tourists. It replaced the Carnival Sunshine, which held 3,006 passengers and now has its homeport in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“It’s the first of its kind,” says Terry Thornton of the Carnival Dream. “It’s the largest ship that’s been to the Port and it’s certainly the largest to operate year-round from there.” The Carnival Dream is the debut vessel from Carnival’s Dream Class Line; its little sisters include the Carnival Magic out of Galveston and the Miami-based Carnival Breeze.
What should a passenger expect aboard a Dream Class cruise ship? Along with the all-inclusive food and entertainment options key to any popular cruise, the Carnival Dream contains the WaterWorks park (which features a 300-foot twister water slide), the Cloud 9 Spa, and an array of outdoor activites, including the chance to enjoy a beverage at the RedFrog Rum Bar and BlueIguana Tequila Bar.
“We put together a whole new area of the ship called Ocean Plaza,” explains Thornton. “It’s an indoor space where there’s some level of entertainment and booths available, and in the outdoor space we’ve got spas that cantilever over the ship.”
The success of the Dream’s new features inspired the company to update the Carnival Magic and Carnival Breeze even further.
“The Carnival Dream was really the launching point,” Thornton says.
The 1,004-foot liner makes three different West Caribbean cruises: a route through the Bahamas and Florida stopping at Key West, Freeport, and Nassau; another through Montego Bay, Jamaica, Cozumel, Mexico and Grand Cayman; and a third itinerary targeting Mahogany Bay’s Isla Roatan, Belize, and Cozumel. The company’s other New Orleans ship, the Elation, handles four- and five-day itineraries to both Progreso and Cozumel, Mexico.
Carnival Cruise lines operates two ships out of New Orleans – Dream (seen here) and Elation.
Entertainment options aboard the Carnival Dream include mini gulf, a spa and a water park.
Royal Caribbean Bids Adieu – For Now
Royal Caribbean International announced in June 2014 that it will not renew its contract with the Port when it expires after the 2014-2015 season. “We’re going to lose Royal Caribbean for at least one year,” says LaGrange. “They’re trying out some new possibilities. We hope to get them back in 2016.”
Big Ships Bring Big Bucks
Carnival and other cruise operators spent upward of $399 million in Louisiana in 2012 and $406 million in 2013. In a 2014 mid-year status update by the CLIA, the Port of New Orleans was ranked the sixth-largest port in the country. Miami, Port Everglades, and Port Canaveral occupy the top three spots.
In 2012 alone, the industry generated 7,548 Louisiana jobs and $294 million in personal income. In 2013, those numbers rose even higher to 8,129 jobs and $323 million in personal income.
Last year, the Port of New Orleans handled 489,000 embarkations (up from 488,000 in 2012 and 369,000 in 2011). In 2014 the growth, while no longer as dramatic, kept its upward trend.
It would be hard not to notice the arrival of a 130,000-ton ship. So it comes as no surprise that news of the Carnival Dream joining the Port of New Orleans last spring prompted a $2.3 million renovation of the Erato Street Terminal.
Terminal improvements sought to maximize flow for the expected increase in passengers by relocating embarkation counters, installing more X-rays and screening machines, and expanding the Captain’s Lounge to triple its former size.
The Port even relocated the gangway of the Julia Street Terminal (first constructed in 2011) to Erato Street, because it matches the configuration of Carnival’s Dream Class lifeboats.
Other changes to Erato Street included painting touch-ups inside the terminal, and the addition of top-of-the-line audio and video navigation aids and information systems.
In part because of these renovations, the Port of New Orleans’ website boasts that the Erato Street Terminal is “the easiest terminal in North America from which to embark and disembark.”
And not just the terminals have been spruced up as a result of the additional activity. This past May, what was formerly known as the Riverwalk Marketplace underwent an $80 million rejuvenation at the hands of the Howard Hughes Corp.
Now known as The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, the shopping mall celebrated its grand opening on Memorial Day Weekend with five days of festivities culminating in fireworks over the Mississippi River. The upscale outlet center is the first establishment of its kind in the nation to be situated in a downtown setting.
In October, the Port will open yet another terminal on Poland Avenue, and is currently in search of cruise lines to call the new space home—or even just pay a visit.
“We’re marketing and promoting ports of call, as well as homeports here,” says LaGrange. As a port of call, New Orleans welcomes visiting ships for a day before they venture south to the Caribbean. “We’ve got a German ship that’s going to be here four different times over a 12-day period.”
“Surprisingly, it’s not other cruise lines,” says Thornton of Carnival’s main opponents. The company focuses the majority of its energy and strategizing against land-based resorts.
“Last year the whole cruise industry in North America generated about 12 million passengers,” said Thornton. “But at the resorts in Las Vegas and Orlando, they had around 90 million people.”
Catching up with the resorts is a lofty goal, but the cruise lines have a few cards to play.
Carnival has shifted focus from the national markets down to a regional level.
“Ten or 15 years ago, we were running 30-second network television spots,” Thornton says. Now the company sponsors local marching band contests and partners on promotional events with the New Orleans Saints and the Pelicans.
“It’s about giving back to the community too,” he adds. “We’re not interested in just coming in and taking advantage of a place.”
In targeting a regional audience, Carnival puts the spotlight on homeports, with the thought that if you live within driving distance of a terminal, your cruise vacation becomes that much more affordable and accessible.
New Orleans is high on the list of these homeports, capturing multiple major cities within a sensibly small radius, as well as offering a range of nearby indulgences and activities for the usually transient tourists.
“People have the opportunity to walk just a few blocks and they’re in the Quarter,” says LaGrange of the city’s tourist appeal. “Plus it’s one of the most European areas—if not the most—in the United States.”
Next Stop Cuba?
In December 2014, President Barack Obama announced intentions to end the long-running embargo with Cuba. The ensuing media forecast focused on cigars, commerce and travel.
But Carnival Cruise Lines isn’t making firm decisions just yet.
“It’s impossible to do much planning,” says Thornton. “I’ve been hearing that it’ll open up for 15 years.”
“Until the embargo is actually lifted there’s not much we can do,” agrees LaGrange. “But we’d love to see homeported ships heading to Cuba.”
While there’s no word yet on Cuba, Thornton shares Carnival’s more concrete prospects.
Along with constructing ports in Haiti and the Dominican Republic for its South Florida vessels, the cruise line will extend its trips out of New Orleans, offering 10- and 11-day itineraries to new destinations such as San Juan, Aruba and Bermuda.
“When those new itineraries open up, I intend to be one of the first passengers,” says LaGrange.
It’s a wider world for New Orleans cruise veterans. For novices, the increased territory offers another incentive to climb aboard.
As passenger numbers grow, large ships are required to handle the demands for capacity. The greater the capacity, the more opportunities are afforded to the cruise industry. And the growth continues.
“You mean people do other vacations than cruises?” jokes Thornton.
Of all the tourists opting for a vacation on the seas, the United States has claimed 51.7 percent of the total passengers so far this year, according to CLIA’s 2014 State of Cruise Industry Report. Even for those who’d rather venture against the grain, the cruise industry makes a solid and tempting case for winning your business.
Top trends for 2014 included technological enhancements, the rise of millennials as independent tourists, and a spike in multigenerational travel.
“Bringing new people to cruising is important,” says Thornton. “But once they try it, they do it for a long time.”
Let’s hope so. A good chunk of New Orleans’ economy is counting on it.
• 80% of cruise passengers in New Orleans
are from out-of-state
• 60% stay an average of two nights
in New Orleans before or after a cruise
• The biggest cruise ship to call New Orleans
home is the current 1,004-foot, 130,000-ton
Carnival Dream, which holds 3,646 passengers.
• More locals than out-of-towners take cruises
out of New Orleans during Carnival season.
Source: 2013 Business Research and Economic Advisors study
TOP MOTIVATORS TO CRUISE
• Value/price: 86.6%
• Destination/itineraries: 77.7%
• Cruise brand reputation: 76%
Source: CLIA Travel Agent Survey
It remains to be seen whether the Cuban embargo will be lifted for cruise ships.
Cruise-goers don’t just spend money onboard. A recent study found 60 percent of passengers that come through New Orleans spend an average of two nights in the city. In 2012, this resulted in passengers and crew spending an estimated $78.4 million.