- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

The New Orleans’ cruise ship industry returns to service tomorrow when the 2,000-passenger Norwegian Sun becomes the first regularly scheduled liner to cast off from the city’s docks since Hurricane Katrina.

The 853-foot Norwegian Cruise Lines vessel is leaving for the Caribbean. Three other cruise ships are expected to return later this year and in 2007.

Before Katrina, four cruise ships called New Orleans home. The industry was rapidly expanding, with more than 700,000 passengers leaving and arriving in 2004 through the port.

But Katrina, which struck in August 2005, shut down the usually strong fall season. Only 308,000 passengers sailed from New Orleans during the first eight months of the year, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), an industry group.

The truncated year supported nearly 5,000 jobs in Louisiana as the industry spent $241 million, a figure that was still higher than the $208 million spent for all of 2004, according to ICCL.

Now, nearly 14 months since the Carnival Sensation embarked on the last regular voyage — just before Katrina hit — the business is starting over.

There have been several one-time liner stops at New Orleans since Katrina, but tomorrow’s voyage marks the return of regularly scheduled service of four- to seven-day voyages. For a time after Katrina, two cruise ships moored at New Orleans to provide housing for emergency workers.

The port is opening a third cruise terminal and a 1,000-vehicle garage at a cost of $38 million that will give the facility the ability to handle two large passenger ships at once. It is bullish enough to be making plans for a fourth terminal.

But Bob Wall, owner of the New Orleans-based travel agency Vacations at Sea, said the first year probably would only be modest as the ships get re-established. He thinks bookings will increase steadily in the coming months.

“Once they (the public) see the ships docked, I think that’s going to provide a nice bump of sales,” he said.

Next in line at the Port of New Orleans is Carnival Cruise Lines’ Fantasy, which sails on Oct. 26, followed by Royal Caribbean International’s Grandeur of the Seas on Dec. 7. Carnival is expected to begin sailing Carnival Triumph next September. All the voyages will be bound to the western Caribbean.

New Orleans’ return to the vacation cruise business comes during a heady time for the industry worldwide, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), another industry group. The industry has averaged an 8.5 percent annual growth rate in passengers since 1980, according to the group. The ICCL put total U.S. economic impact in 2005 at $32.2 billion.

After an industry record of 11.2 million passengers in 2005, the business is expecting 11.7 million this year, said CLIA spokesman Brian Major.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was one of the fastest-growing cruise ports in the country. That was fueled by the attraction of the city itself. Passengers often toured the French Quarter and other attractions before or after a cruise.

No figures are available on collateral spending specifically by cruise passengers. However, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau said the average domestic visitor spent $196 per day in the city in 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, while an international visitor put down $244 per day on average.

But that was before Katrina. Since the storm, the city has struggled with losses in its convention business and a very slow summer, in part affected by widespread concern outside the region about the city’s condition.

Mr. Wall said tomorrow’s cruise is near capacity, but like airlines, cruise companies offer various ticket deals in hopes of filling up all the cabins. “The question is on-board revenue, such as shore excursions, the casinos, the bars,” he said.

Ticket prices for the cruise were the lowest in several years, Mr. Wall said, ranging from about $500 per passenger for an interior cabin to $1,200 for luxury accommodations. “That’s great for the consumer, though, of course, it keeps the cruise line officials nervous,” he said.

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