Cruise ship traffic is key to the New Orleans economy

Posted on: January 9 2012
Cruise ships are a reminder of the importance of the Mississippi River for New Orleans.

By Rick Jervis, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

NEW ORLEANS - Saturday mornings at the Port of New Orleans are a rush of activity. Passengers, fresh off Mexican or Caribbean vacations, stream off cruise ships and into cabs for trips into the city. Port employees steer the crowds into the proper lanes. Tour guides corral their groups into waiting vans.

The port hasn’t seen this level of tourist bustle since before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, unleashing floods across the city and chasing away most of the cruise business.

The return late last year of three major ships - the 2,052-passenger Elation and 2,974-passenger Conquest, both from Carnival Cruise Lines, and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas - is driving up cruise business even beyond pre-Katrina levels. The port is likely to host more than 1 million cruise passengers this year, up from 750,000 just before Katrina, according to port statistics.

The arrival of the ships, along with new paddle-wheel boats that will offer cruises up the Mississippi River and along the Gulf Coast this year, signals the return of the river as a viable economic engine, says Gary LaGrange, Port of New Orleans president and chief executive. Nearly one-fourth of the port’s revenue comes from the cruise ships, he says.

"It’s huge," LaGrange says. "We’ll hit a million passengers for the first time ever this year. We wanted to do it earlier, but Katrina didn’t want us to."

Ships were pivotal

Stark memories remain of cruise ships during Katrina. After the floods swallowed 80% of the city, Carnival lent two of its ships - the Ecstasy and the Sensation - to the city to house police officers, firefighters, city employees and others trying to salvage the engulfed city, says Chris Bonura, a port spokesman. Soon after, the ships left the port as tourism ground to a halt and the city began its long haul to recovery.

The gradual revival of the city and the appeal of New Orleans as a destination for cruisegoers made it an appealing port to return to, says Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman. The port invested nearly $60 million in renovating two of its cruise ship terminals that allowed it to handle the larger ships. A third terminal is undergoing a $40 million renovation. "The appeal as a pre- or post-cruise destination is very strong in New Orleans," Gulliksen says. "People like to come in and spend a few days there."

And when they stay, they spend, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the port. At that time, the New Orleans cruise industry brought in about $226 million a year and created nearly 2,800 jobs, the study showed. The average cruise embarking from New Orleans generated about $572,000 in passenger and crew expenditures in the greater New Orleans area.

Jim Szeszycki, who runs a company that helps passengers disembark from the port, has seen the numbers grow. The number of passengers coming off cruises has soared from a trickle in 2006, when the first cruise ship returned to the city, to about 16,000 each day the ships dock, he says. His staff and revenue both doubled last year, he says.

"It’s a huge impact," Szeszycki says as swarms of cruisegoers file past him. "It impacts hotels, restaurants, everybody."

Soon, joining the cruise crowd at the port will be four steamboats offering slow cruises up the Mississippi to Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis and St. Paul, and along the coast to Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla.

River fed city’s fortunes

The original steamboats opened commerce between New Orleans and cities upriver in the early 19th century and established the city as a booming international port, says Mark Fernandez, a history professor at Loyola University.

Their return this year is a reminder of what the river means to the city, he says.

"The river has been vitally important to Louisiana and New Orleans from its very beginnings," Fernandez says. "The port was the engine that drove the New Orleans economy."

LaGrange says he is in discussions with cruise lines about offering a 10-day cruise from New Orleans through the Panama Canal when the famed waterway expands in 2014.

The port is bracing for a crunch of cruise visitors during upcoming major events in New Orleans, including the BCS national championship game Monday, the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball championship March 31 and April 2 and the 2013 Super Bowl. "There are going to be a lot of reasons to come to the city," LaGrange says.