North American cruise ship passengers didn’t enjoy 100 percent smooth sailing during the past year. But notable incidents aside, cruise vacations remain popular and the industry appears poised to grow in 2014, likely bringing thousands of more visitors to New Orleans.

While official 2013 reports are not yet available, business analysts predict the cruise industry’s steady growth in recent years will continue through this year and beyond. After adding 11 ships to their collective fleet during ’13, North American cruise lines are slated to invest $3.4 billion in 13 more ships during ’14, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

Figures compiled by the association indicate the North American cruise fleet will contain 240 cruise ships, with some 380,000 beds, by the end of 2015.

After a string of difficulties in the past year, the cruise lines may have to work a little harder to fill that growing capacity.

During 2013, at least four cruise ships in the Carnival Cruise Lines fleet ran into vacation-disrupting problems that included power failures, a steering malfunction and an engine room fire. In the worst of the incidents, passengers endured five days on a ship without air conditioning, lights or working toilets as tug boats pulled the vessel across the Gulf of Mexico to a dry dock in Mobile, Ala.

Royal Caribbean International also faced a public relations challenge when a fire broke out on its Grandeur of the Seas in May. While no one was injured and the ship didn’t lose power, the company had to scratch the rest of the cruise, fly passengers back to the United States from the Bahamas and cancel six subsequent sailings.

The well-publicized problems no doubt dampened the enthusiasm of some would-be cruisers, but the industry is hoping that as upgraded ships with new amenities come on line, the business will regain its buoyancy.

In New Orleans, local port director Gary LaGrange said recently that local cruise business is on track to reach a new high, topping the record 488,000 passengers who embarked from local docks in 2012.

An economic impact study performed by CLIA shows that cruise spending in Louisiana rose 40 percent last year and the industry generated more than 7,500 jobs. The association ranks New Orleans as the sixth largest cruise port in the United States.

LaGrange recently hailed the announcement of several new or renovated ships in the lineup of weekly sailings from New Orleans. The vessels include the 3,600-passenger Carnival Dream, slated to replace the Sunshine in April, and Royal Caribbean’s 2,300-passenger Serenade of the Seas.

Norwegian Cruise Line also introduced the Norwegian Jewel in New Orleans last fall. The 2,400-passenger vessel offers weekly cruises to the western Caribbean from October to April.

Among the ship’s featured amenities are the largest suites currently at sea: 5,000-square-foot, three-bedroom “garden villas.”

The ships now sailing from New Orleans reflect the cruise lines’ efforts to both expand the demographics of cruise passengers and deepen their loyalty.

The major lines, for instance, now include a variety of ethnic and specialty restaurant choices to augment the main dining room experience. The menu of activities has also grown.

Carnival’s new ship has an outdoor fitness complex that includes rope courses and climbing walls, along with an expanded adults-only “serenity” deck and a water park that features a 330-foot-long corkscrew water slide.

LaGrange says the quality of the ships now calling New Orleans home shows that “the industry is confident and bullish on our market.”

The port is making room for the growing business with a new cruise ship terminal. Design work is underway for a terminal that can berth two ships at a time at the Poland Avenue wharf on the Mississippi River. LaGrange says the new Crescent Park, which is being developed between Esplanade and Poland avenues, will provide a welcoming setting for passengers at the wharf.

Meanwhile, alongside the upriver cruise terminals at Julia and Erato streets, the former Riverwalk Marketplace, owned by the Howard Hughes Corp., will soon reopen as an upscale outlet mall that will put dozens of popular retail stores steps away from cruise passengers’ primary point of embarkation.

The port’s cruise and tourism director, Robert Jumonville, predicts that local passenger numbers “will be marginally better” this year than in 2013 as the national economy continues to improve and memories of adverse incidents at sea fade away.

“Those kinds of events can have a temporary effect on the industry as a whole,” he says, but he doesn’t think the impact will be lasting.

He notes that following the power-loss incidents on Carnival’s ships last year, the company equipped all of its vessels with reserve generators so that any power disruption in the future will not leave passengers without toilets,  conditioning or hot water.

“Carnival is an awfully large company and is very well operated, and they have gotten their act together,” he says.

Jumonville says that marketing efforts by the major lines that operate in New Orleans fit perfectly into initiatives underway by local tourism and convention agencies to bolster the city’s profile as a tourism destination. Their collective aim is to increase annual visitors to New Orleans from some 9 million people to 13 million by 2018.

Cruise Control
Carnival Dream
Cruise Control
Serenade of the Seas

Industry Rides a Wave
Four cruise ships offer weekly sailings from New Orleans to various destinations. They are:

Ship    Owner    # of beds    Frequency
Dream     Carnival Cruise Lines    3,646    weekly (year-round)
Elation    Carnival Cruise Lines    2,052    weekly (year-round)
Norwegian Jewel    Norwegian Cruise Line    2,376    weekly (Oct-April)
Serenade of the Seas    Royal Caribbean Intl.    2,360    weekly (Dec-April)

Economic impact
Port of New Orleans officials last year retained consulting firm Business Research and Economic Advisors to evaluate passenger and crew spending in the local region. The study found that:

• More than 80 percent of cruise passengers are from out of state.

• Sixty percent of passengers spend an average of two nights in New Orleans either before or after their cruise.

• Passengers and shipboard crew spent $78 million locally in 2012.

Research by Cruise Lines International Association showed that the cruise industry generated $400 million in direct spending in Louisiana in 2012.

The industry employed more than 7,500 Louisiana residents and accounted for $294 million in total annual income, the association said.