As state and local tourism officials work to attract more international visitors, the sight of the Europa 2 luxury cruise liner docked near the French Quarter this month was a welcome change.
Nearly 500 passengers, mostly well-heeled and hailing from Central Europe, were ready to disembark and explore the city.
Business was brisk at the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk. The mall is connected to the Julia Street cruise ship terminal, which provides easy access for the hundreds of thousands of passengers who set sail from the facility each year.
"We definitely see an impact when the cruise ships are here," said Frank Quinn, the mall's general manager.
While the city is accustomed to hosting cruise passengers as a home port for three ships, the Europa 2 is one symbol of New Orleans' growth as a destination port-of-call. Port calls are visits from cruise ships that don't home-port here but dock at the port as part of a planned itinerary visiting multiple cities.
The Europa 2 is one of seven ships scheduled to make 19 port calls in New Orleans this year. That's up from 11 port calls last year, an increase that local officials and travel experts say partly reflects growing global interest in New Orleans.
But the real jackpot, Quinn said, is when a high-end liner like the Europa 2 makes a port call.
"In general, those customers basically spend two full days in the city, experiencing what it has to offer," he said. "The shopping, of course, at Riverwalk. They take the tours, they eat in our restaurants, they visit our bars, and they are here to really experience the city."
Titles for excursions offered by one of the other port-of-call cruise lines, P&O Cruises, include "Snapshot of New Orleans," "Evening of Dixieland Jazz," "French Quarter Walk," "Mardi Gras Madness," "Paddlewheeler, Jazz and Dinner," and beyond the city, a "Louisiana Swamp Tour" and an "Old Southern Style" tour of the Oak Alley plantation in Vacherie.
In 2015, the port hosted more than 1 million passengers, making it the sixth-busiest cruise port in the country, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. This year's totals are on pace to beat that, officials say.
Overall, New Orleans drew nearly 9.8 million total visitors last year, edging closer to the 10.1 million mark hit in 2004, the year before Hurricane Katrina upended the local tourism industry. That translated into record spending of more than $7 billion.
Already, New Orleans attracts about 675,000 international travelers annually.
For hospitality leaders, international travelers are an especially appealing demographic because they tend to stay in the city longer — typically as long as 18 days in the U.S. — and spend more money during their visit than American tourists.
The Europa 2 is a prime example. The ship, which is owned and operated by Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, has consistently been a top-ranked liner since its launch in 2013.
Among its amenities: the largest per-passenger space in the cruise industry; an art collection of nearly 900 original works; and seven gourmet restaurants and six bars that offer a selection of 600 wines and more than 200 varieties of gin.
Fare for the 15-day outing that stopped in New Orleans started at $9,470 per person. The trip began in New York and stopped in Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; Miami and Key West, Florida, before wrapping up in Progreso, in the Mexican state of Yucatán.
Although the port's main focus is on adding new ships that are interested in home-porting in New Orleans, bolstering the number of port calls is also a lucrative business.
And New Orleans is poised to continue to do so, according to some local boosters and national travel experts, who cite the cruise ship terminal's close proximity to the city's famed hotels, bars and restaurants.
"Keep in mind, New Orleans is one of the few ports in America where you can get off your ship and walk straight into downtown, literally off the ship, into Cafe du Monde," said Kim Priez, senior vice president of tourism for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's just one of the best ports in America when it comes to the logistics of where those ships dock and what the experience is for the passenger."
To some travel experts, New Orleans is an appealing home port for cruise ships because travelers can spend a few nights in the city before or after their trip, said Carolyn Spencer Brown, the editor of Cruise Critic, a consumer information website owned by TripAdvisor.
As for briefer port calls, she said, "The recipe for success as a port-of-call is both the lure of the place itself, and New Orleans is in the top, top, top tier in the U.S. as a city with so much more that you can see and do, but also remembering the logistics of making it easy for the cruise lines to come in and out."
Don Allee, the port's director of cruise and tourism operations, said his goal is to turn a port call into a repeat customer.
"A port call is great and it brings people to our town that maybe have never been here before, but we target home ports because we think the rewards are long term and greater all the way around," he said.
With a port call, a potential return is never a sure thing. The bookings typically occur 18 months to two years in advance, he said. The Europa 2 is scheduled to return for another port call in November 2017.
Still, Allee said, the port "pulls out all the stops" when ships arrive for brief stays, for officials "never know if that visit could translate into something long term in the future. "
"Who knows where Hapag-Lloyd (Cruises) will be in the future," he said. "They may have a home port opportunity, and they will have had a positive experience in October 2016 here in New Orleans to think about when those opportunities pop up."
2016 Ports of Call in Louisiana
AIDAvita's AIDA — 1,266 passengers; Jan. 8-9; Jan. 29-30; Feb. 19-20; March 11-12; April 1-2; Nov. 5-6, Nov. 25-26; Dec. 16-17; Dec. 28-29
P & O Cruises' Oriana — 1,880 passengers; Feb. 4-5; April 22-23; Nov. 8-9
P & O Cruises' Oceana — 2,016 passengers; Feb. 26-27
P & O Cruises' Azura — 3,100 passengers; Dec. 22-24
Hapag LLoyd's Europa — 400 passengers; April 5-6
Hapag Lloyd's Europa 2 — 500 passengers; Oct. 10-12
Royal Caribbean's Azamara Quest — 690 passengers; Oct. 25-26
Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity — 1,070 passengers; Nov. 21-23; Dec. 6-7