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TIMES-PICAYUNE:New Orleans is still luring cruise vessels, even as new marke

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  • Jimmy
    This article isn t completely about Cuba, but it does come up towards the end. ... New Orleans is still luring cruise vessels, even as new markets are emerging
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 11, 2011
      This article isn't completely about Cuba, but it does come up towards the end.

      New Orleans is still luring cruise vessels, even as new markets are emerging
      Published: Sunday, July 10, 2011, 9:04 AM
      By Richard Thompson, The Times-Picayune The Times-Picayune
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      Print Port officials scored a victory in November when Norwegian Cruise Line announced that its 2,018-passenger Norwegian Spirit ship would test the market by sailing year-round out of New Orleans for 18 months, offering "a whirlwind week in the western Caribbean" to go with more than a dozen dining options, 10 bars and lounges, and four outdoor hot tubs.

      John McCusker, The Times-PicayuneSelling passengers on Norwegian Spirit cruises from New Orleans during the summer 'has probably been a little tougher than we expected,' said Crane Gladding, a Norwegian executive. The company plans to ship the Spirit off to Europe next summer.

      But after facing sluggish sales through the summer, Norwegian plans to move the ship to Europe next year, where it will set sail on two different itineraries. In its place, the larger, 2,348-passenger Norwegian Star is slated to depart from New Orleans on winter cruises starting in late 2012.

      While company officials say they were "very pleased" with the number of reservations for winter voyages from New Orleans, selling passengers on the trip during the warmer months "has probably been a little tougher than we expected," said Crane Gladding, senior vice president of revenue management and passenger services at Norwegian.

      Instead, the company sees more room to grow summer bookings in some of the cruise industry's hot new markets, like Barcelona, Spain, and Venice, Italy. That's particularly true during the summer, long considered the bread and butter for cruise lines because it generally yields the highest-priced reservations. "We had originally felt like we would be able to achieve those pricing levels in New Orleans," he said, "and we really just have not seen that develop."

      Still, port officials and people in the local tourism industry say Norwegian's decision to suspend year-round cruising from the Crescent City isn't a clear sign that interest in cruising from New Orleans is waning.

      In fact, both Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean plan to bring new ships to New Orleans this fall, and the promise of an easing of restrictions on travel to Cuba could position New Orleans well for cruises to that country. Numbers from a recent passenger survey commissioned by the port also seem to suggest continued interest in cruising from the Big Easy.

      Opening door to Caribbean

      Nearly two decades have passed since Carnival Cruise Lines launched the first year-round program from New Orleans in 1994. The 1,022-passenger Carnival Tropicale made about 25 voyages a year to ports in Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; and Tampa, Fla.

      Four years later, Carnival added Montego Bay, Jamaica, to its growing list of destinations, aboard the larger Celebration, bumping up capacity by almost half.

      Since then, the size and specter of the ships continued to grow: The 2,052-passenger Inspiration replaced the Celebration; a second ship, the 1,452-passenger Holiday, was added in 2002, and the 2,974-passenger Carnival Conquest replaced the Inspiration later that year. Meanwhile, in 2004, the Holiday was replaced by the 2,052-passenger Sensation, which increased capacity on the line's four- and five-day program by 41 percent.

      Those gains took a sharp turn after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, leading to an extended shuttering of the port. But officials say business has picked up since: In addition to the Norwegian Spirit, Carnival Cruise Lines will have a second ship sailing from the port starting this fall. And Royal Caribbean plans to anchor its Voyager of the Seas ship in New Orleans beginning in November. The vessel will make 24 cruises to the Caribbean through 2012.

      Royal Caribbean had a ship in New Orleans from 2002 until Katrina hit in 2005. And a Royal Caribbean liner called on New Orleans during the winter cruise season from December 2006 through April 2007, but the company decided to shift its resources elsewhere.

      Making waves locally

      For their part, port officials who surveyed passengers on the Carnival Triumph and the Norwegian Spirit from October to January describe the economic impact of hosting the ships as far-reaching: On average, passengers and crew members spent about $138 in the city, about 5 percent above the national average, according to the port.

      Sixty percent of cruise passengers reported making a purchase in New Orleans, while 87 percent said they stayed overnight in the city either before or after their cruise, according to the port.

      The survey also found that 13 percent of cruise passengers reported living in the New Orleans area, and an additional 10 percent said they lived elsewhere in the state. The average cruise passenger was about 50 years old.

      Judging from her more than two decades booking cruises in the local market, those figures sound in tune to Amy McGee, an agent at Travel Leaders in New Orleans. But for repeat passengers, continually leaving from a home port can have its disadvantages.

      "It's the convenience of not having to go somewhere else and leave," McGee said. "It's less expensive to leave out of the port of the city that you live, however, the itineraries are limited. But if you're willing to repeat the itineraries over and over again, it's the best buy in town."

      Potential cruise passengers tend to break down options by the best deal, or what will fit within a limited window of time. "It may be a little bit more expensive out of this port than out of the Florida ports, but when you add in the cost of air travel or driving, it pretty much negates the expense of the cruise out of here," McGee said.

      Without missing a beat, she added: "But of course, we have some pretty good prices out of New Orleans, also."

      Still, interest has picked up, according to McGee, as more people examine the economics of a cruise, particularly on a family budget. In some cases, she said, a five-day trip to the western Caribbean from New Orleans aboard Carnival can cost as little as $48 a night for double-occupancy.

      Freshening the lineup

      To help maintain its repeat customers, Norwegian in the past couple of years has added new destinations in Belize City, Mexico, and Roatan, Honduras.

      For his part, Gladding said the new end spots offer a different experience to frequent passengers. "It's almost like a self-fulfilling proficiency," he said. "When a cruise line can select a port and send frequent and regular calls to that port, businesses around the area that the cruise line visits can kind of build up similar to what you see in New Orleans."

      Also, the prospect of cruising has struck an interest among some new vacationers as a way to squeeze several different destinations in one trip.

      "Cruise lines can get you to more unique and exotic places," Gladding said, "and so we think Roatan and Costa Maya are really ports that are somewhat difficult for people to get to when they're not on a cruise."

      Robert Landry, director of marketing at the Port of New Orleans, has seen the transformation firsthand.

      "I got into this business in the 1980s, and Cozumel didn't have a dock," Landry said. "They just anchored off and tendered everybody in. Now, Cozumel has four docks, and they can accommodate eight ships a day." When cruise lines can't get dock space, they anchor offshore and ferry passengers ashore in smaller boats, a process called tendering.

      Bridget Bordelon, an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans who has studied destination images and destination marketing, said cruise passengers are generally drawn to the "constructed landscape of the perfect sunscape."

      "I don't think it matters if you're going to Nassau or if you're going to Grand Cayman," Bordelon said.

      New cruising frontier?

      Observers of the cruise industry also expect that, if the White House continues to ease restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba, the Communist island could become a boon for the local cruise ship industry given its proximity from the Gulf of Mexico.

      "It's bound to become a popular thing," said Stanley Buchin, an associate professor of hospitality administration at Boston University, who studied the Cuban-to-U.S. market about 15 years ago and found that there's "lots of pent-up demand, lots of people want to go there, particularly if the Cubans go back to making the place more attractive to tourists."

      Gladding agreed. "I think Cuba is definitely interesting to the cruise lines, and I do think New Orleans is well-positioned for that," he said.

      Despite having a potential target audience already assembled, Gladding said the larger question lies in whether Cuba will have the infrastructure in place to handle an influx of passengers.

      "Until there's a decision, we're not really privy to kind of what infrastructure is available, what opportunities are available," Gladding said. But "we think there would be a lot of interest" in cruising to Cuba.

      Especially for ships docked in New Orleans, said Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the port.

      "There's no more logical place to have a cruise ship home-ported calling on Cuba," LaGrange said. "I think we would be in the perfect position, and it's one that we would eye."

      Port officials have had informal talks with cruise line operators about the possibility, he said.

      Adding capacity for ships

      In the meantime, the port is limited for room to expand. Work is under way on a $17 million expansion of the Julia Street terminal that would convert two existing terminals into "one megaterminal," a project that should be finished by the end of September, said Landry, the port's director of marketing. A portion of the financing, $8.5 million, came from the state.

      At Poland Avenue, port officials are looking to add capacity for two more cruise ships per week with a $25 million project that has been on the back burner since Katrina, Landry said, noting the effort is waiting on financing.

      Still, he described the push behind the development as the "reverse Field of Dreams theory, that if you don't build it, they won't come, and so you want to have the facilities available."

      LaGrange said future expansion on Poland Avenue "could very well be the home of one that would call on Havana."

      Besides, the similarities between New Orleans and Cuba, at least on first sight, LaGrange said, were apparent. "If you drive through downtown Havana," he said, "you'd swear you were on St. Charles Avenue."

      Richard Thompson can be reached at rthompson@... or 504.826.3496 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 504.826.3496 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
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