Cruise Control

Thousands answer the call to ‘Come sail away’

Though New Orleans’ history is deeply intertwined with the growth of commerce on the lower Mississippi River, few could have imagined centuries ago that much of today’s industry would involve people and thier entertainment.

Cruise ship business at the Port of New Orleans hit a new local record last year when some 590,000 passengers set sail from the city. More than 235 vessel arrivals included two 3,000-passenger ships operated by Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean’s “Vision of the Seas” and Norwegian Cruise Lines’ “Norwegian Breakaway,” which carries nearly 4,000 passengers.

The cruise business has grown right along with the popularity of New Orleans as a visitor destination. As tourism marketers have promoted the idea of combining a few overnight stays in the Big Easy with week-long voyages through the Gulf of Mexico, passenger volumes have boomed. The port accommodates the growth with two modern passenger facilities at its Erato Street and Julia Street wharves, and a host of local businesses fulfill the service and supply needs of the big vessels.

While most local cruise passengers board sleek ocean liners for voyages to Caribbean islands or Mexico, the total passenger count in New Orleans gets a boost from river travelers. Five river vessels, including old-fashioned paddle-wheelers, carried more than 15,000 passengers from New Orleans in 2018. The itineraries include multi-night tours of the lower Mississippi and even a round-trip voyage to Minnesota, near the river’s head. The riverboats are operated by the American Queen Steamboat Company, which will soon introduce a new vessel in the city, and American Cruise Lines, whose modern-day cruisers resemble those that ply European waterways.

Tourism marketers currently are celebrating news that yet another ocean cruise operator has decided to sink roots in the city. Starting in early 2020, passengers can board the “Disney Wonder” for the Bahamas, the western Caribbean and a special voyage through the Panama Canal.

Port officials are excited by the prospect of Disney joining the local cruise lineup, particularly as the “Wonder” features the popular New Orleans-based character Tiana from the movie “Princess and the Frog.”

Disney will offer six cruises from New Orleans around the time of Mardi Gras, and port officials are hoping that local families who have a tradition of traveling to Disney World during the Carnival season may be enticed, instead, to take one of the themed cruises.

“When a brand like Disney comes to New Orleans, it underscores the fact that we are a destination for the whole family,” Renee Aragon Dolese, a spokeswoman for the port, said.

Marketers say the impact of the cruise business on the New Orleans economy is substantial. Cruise passengers generated some 300,000 room nights in local hotels last year as they took time to explore the city before or after their voyage.

Beyond the obvious spending by passengers in hotels, restaurants and retail stores before and after their cruise, businesses that service the vessels and re-supply them for outgoing cruises benefit from the cruise boom. The fueling, maintenance and supplies needed by the vessels each time they return to port constitutes an industry all its own.

In addition, passenger business at the port generates revenue at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Port officials say 90 percent of cruise guests travel from out-of-state, and nearly a third of them fly into and out of the airport, which has helped fuel the growth of new direct air services.

According to port President and CEO Brandy Christian, “Our homeport status is important for the local economy and helps us fulfill our role as an economic engine for Louisiana.”