Homeport choice in Texas

By Tom Stieghorst
An empty cruise terminal has haunted Houston for nearly five years, but a revival is in the works that could bring dueling ports back to Texas for the first time since 2007.

Starting next year, passengers and travel agents will again have a choice of homeports in the Lone Star State.

An established cruise trade is already crowding the Port of Galveston, which hosts ships from Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International and Disney Cruise Lines.

Some 50 miles farther inland, Houston will gain a Princess Cruises ship in late 2013 and a Norwegian Cruise Line vessel in 2014.

The Houston deployment gives new life to the $100 million Bayport Cruise Terminal (technically located in the city of Pasadena), which has been used chiefly for hurricane emergency response and for cargo ship dockage since it was finished in 2008.

“We’re tickled that it’s going to be used for its intended purpose,” Houston Port Director Len Waterworth said.

Cruising from Texas could gain momentum now that its two ports are each drawing ships, Waterworth said. “You know if you get one, and the market continues to grow, you may end up attracting others.”

Already, Texas residents trail only Florida in their affection for cruising. Last year 1.1 million Texans, or 11% of the state’s population, took a cruise, according to CLIA.

Ports in Texas are an important drive destination for mid-South cruisers and a closer departure point for West Coast residents who may want a Caribbean cruise without a flight to Florida.

By one account, a short supply of berth space for ships in Galveston is partly responsible for Houston’s comeback.

When Disney Cruise Line relocated the Disney Magic to Galveston from New York in September, it created the potential for overcrowding, Galveston Port Director Mike Mierzwa said.

Disney agreed to an alternating six- and eight-day cruise schedule when it started at Galveston in September, but it asked for a seven-day schedule starting next fall, which would put three big ships in port on Saturdays at the same time.

Mierzwa said the Princess and Carnival ships would have had to share a terminal to board, and Princess officials concluded that was likely to make many passengers unhappy.

“They were not willing to jeopardize their guest satisfaction being the third ship here on a Saturday,” Mierzwa said.

Having already advertised cruises from Texas, Mierzwa said Princess made the “logical” decision to move to Houston, where the Caribbean Princess will begin sailing in 2013. “I fully understand why they decided they needed to go,” he said.

Norwegian’s decision to cruise from Houston marks a return to the city where it pioneered cruises from Texas 15 years ago.

In 1997, when ports on the Gulf of Mexico were less popular with cruise lines, Norwegian created a seven-day cruise it marketed as a “Texaribbean” itinerary out of a smaller terminal in Houston.

Galveston joined the fray in 2000 when Carnival put a ship there, followed by a second in 2001.

Houston cruise terminalThe ports competed until 2007, when Norwegian pulled out. By that time, construction was well under way on the 96,000-square-foot Bayport terminal (photo at left).

With no ships, Houston’s terminal stayed vacant and Galveston gained traction, partly because it is about two-and-a-half hours closer to the open ocean than Houston.

Waterworth said that when he joined the port earlier this year he made an aggressive push to recruit new cruise business.

Norwegian had been canvassing ports on the Gulf of Mexico, checking on costs.
Ultimately, Norwegian opted to return to Houston, where it will base a ship seasonally for three years. “They have made a business case that it’s good to come to the Houston Port Authority’s cruise terminal,” Waterworth said.

Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan credited demand from customers and travel agents for the return to Houston. He also said delivery of the Norwegian Breakaway next year and the Getaway the following year frees up ships like the Norwegian Jewel, currently in New York, to homeport elsewhere.

Although it is farther from the ocean, Houston is closer to major airports than Galveston.

Mierzwa estimated that up to 90% of Carnival’s passengers drive to their cruise but said it could be as low as 50% for Princess. “It’s a different demographic,” he said.

Beth Leonhardt, a Houston agent affiliated with Avoya Travel/American Express, said, “I think it’s wonderful they’re bringing more ships.”

Leonhardt said her only concern is finding the Port of Houston, which she said sits in an industrial neighborhood.

“You’re not even sure you’re in the right area,” she said. “It doesn’t look like Miami.”

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.
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