While the most heated talk about signings and multi-year contracts this time of year usually involves pro sports, a recently inked deal between the port of New Orleans and Norwegian Cruise Line has quietly set the stage to help continue an ongoing boon for the local tourism industry.

Norwegian Cruise Line signed a three-year agreement, with an additional three-year option, to home port its 2,000-passenger cruise ship Norwegian Spirit in New Orleans. Norwegian plans 20 sailings per year from New Orleans, which is good news for more than just potential vacationers.

The port says passengers coming to the area for all cruise departures account for more than 180,000 room nights booked in local hotels, and that industry spending totals about $149 million in the state each year. Norwegian has home-ported a vessel in New Orleans since 2003, and it was the first cruise line to recommit a ship here after Hurricane Katrina. The port has been marketing itself and investing in new terminal facilities to build its cruise activity, both to supplement cargo business and for the shore-side dividends it pays in traveler spending.

Norwegian’s decision to keep a major ship in New Orleans comes at a time when economic turmoil is making any visitor spending more precious in the local market. But port spokesman Chris Bonura says cruises from New Orleans should prove more durable than other travel segments.

“People will find a way to relax, one way or another, so if they have to stretch their dollars to do that cruises can look more attractive because most costs are packaged together,” he says.

Even while the economy seemed in freefall during 2008, cruise lines reported a record 13 million passengers for the year, according to the trade group Cruise Lines International. New Orleans and other ports that were once considered second-tier for the cruise industry have seen the fastest growth in recent years, largely drawing from passengers who can save money by driving to embarkation points rather than flying to much larger cruise line ports in Florida or New York. There’s also the unique allure of New Orleans as a destination.

“We always market New Orleans as two trips in one for cruise passengers,” says Bonura. “People can drive down here and experience America’s most European city with a taste of the Caribbean and then ship off to the Caribbean itself for their cruise.”