Eight years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and less than three years after the BP oil spill inflicted further damage, the cruise industry is playing a big role in fueling the Crescent City’s comeback as a tourism destination.
In a year when cruise lines are focused heavily on Caribbean itineraries, New Orleans’ relative proximity to the region – just 30 hours by sea to the Western Caribbean and the Bahamas – is a boon for the city, for cruise lines – and potentially for travel agents.
CLIA ranks the Mississippi’s deep 200-foot basin at Algiers Point in New Orleans as the sixth-largest cruise port in the U.S.
“New Orleans is a favorite destination for the cruise industry and one of the fastest-growing cruise ports in the U.S.,” said Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans.
La Grange’s assertion is borne out by recent deployments.
In October, Norwegian Cruise Line’s 2,376-passenger Norwegian Jewel made its inaugural visit to its new homeport of New Orleans, replacing the 2,348-passenger Norwegian Star.
One month later, Royal Caribbean replaced the Navigator of the Seas with the newly renovated Serenade of the Seas, which will sail weekly from the recently renovated Julia Street Cruise Terminal in New Orleans.
And on Nov. 18, the 3,006-passenger Carnival Sunshine – fresh from a $155 million makeover – set sail on its inaugural voyage from the Big Easy. The ship will operate a schedule of seven-day cruises to Cozumel and Grand Cayman.
Carnival’s big presence
The Carnival Sunshine is the largest Carnival Cruise Lines ship ever to be home-ported in New Orleans.
Together with Carnival's other ship that sails year-round ships from the Erato Street Cruise Terminal to the eastern and western Caribbean – the Carnival Elation – it makes Carnival the No. 1 cruise operator in New Orleans.
“All of these ship deployments show the industry is confident and bullish on our market,” LaGrange said.
Opportunity for agents
For travel agents, the growth of another drive-in cruise port in the U.S. is good news.
Approximately 61% of passengers extend their vacation before or after their cruise, according to LaGrange. In addition to boosting New Orleans’ bottom line by $5 billion, the trend creates opportunities for travel agents to sell pre- and post-cruise add-ons.
“We market cruising from New Orleans as two vacations in one, and passengers respond by staying an average of two days here either before or after their cruise,” LaGrange said.
The opportunities are ripest for agents in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, California and Florida, since they are the primary source markets for the state.
For its part, New Orleans sees a valuable partner in the cruise industry.
“Our goal is to create economic activity. And our cruise partners – Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Lines – are investing in the New Orleans market with more modern and larger vessels sailing a wide variety of itineraries to all destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Bahamas and Key West,” LaGrange said.
In 2012, CLIA reported that investments in Louisiana by the North American cruise industry grew by 42.5% to $399 million. Passenger embarkations in 2012 rose by 32%, or 488,000, setting a new record for the port.
“These figures underscore how important the cruise industry is to the Louisiana economy,” said LaGrange.
More investment is on the horizon. La Grange reported that “plans are full steam ahead” for a new Poland Avenue Cruise Terminal.
Two other projects that will benefit the Port’s cruise industry are underway or nearing completion – the Howard Hughes Corp.’s $80 million transformation of the Riverwalk, which is partly Port, and the City of New Orleans’ $30 million Crescent Park.
And as the 300th anniversary of New Orleans approaches in 2018, there are plans to build a new airport.
In the years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city has seen the addition of 300 restaurants and many new cultural attractions – along with multimillion-dollar investments in local hotels ($400 million), the Louisiana Superdome ($250 million) and the Morial Convention Center ($92.7 million).
During the first half of 2012, New Orleans reported a 2% increase in visitor arrivals, edging up to 4.9 million visitors who spent a total of $3.45 billion. That’s an 11% boost over the same time in 2011.