Mobile keen on filling void left by Carnival

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Carnival Fantasy and Carnival ElationArmed with survey data that they say demonstrates a broad interest in cruising out of Mobile, Ala., officials at Alabama Cruise Terminal are moving aggressively to find a replacement for the Carnival Elation, which is being redeployed to New Orleans in October.

Carnival Cruise Lines' move will leave Mobile without a cruise ship presence, which ACT says will translate to economic hit to the region of $20 million per year.

Carnival Cruise Lines president Gerry Cahill cited "unfavorable financial results" as the reason for moving the 2,000-passenger ship out of Mobile, where it has been homeported for more than a year.

The Carnival Elation, which operates four-, five- and seven-night Western Caribbean sailings, is the third Carnival Cruise Lines ship to serve Mobile. The first was the Carnival Holiday, which also was the first ship to use the Gulf city's $24 million cruise terminal after it was constructed in 2004.

The 1,452-passenger Holiday was replaced by the Carnival Fantasy in 2009. The Carnival Elation arrived in 2010.

Sheila Gurganus, general manager of Alabama Cruise Terminal, which is a unit of the Alabama State Port Authority, described the pullout by Carnival Cruise Lines as "a real downer."

The terminal was constructed in eight months, she noted, after Carnival confirmed it would base a ship there in October 2004.

"We're working very hard to find another line," she said, adding, "It's been a blessing to have a ship here. There have been such economic hard times. It was a bright light, having a ship sailing from Mobile."

She estimated the economic impact of the cruise operation at about $20 million this year; when Carnival arrived in Mobile nearly seven years ago, the estimated impact was about $15 million.

After Cahill made his decision, the terminal hired Roger Blum, a former Carnival Cruise Lines executive who now runs the Cruise & Port Advisors consultancy in Miami. Blum urged the terminal to do its homework before approaching other cruise lines to fill the soon-to-be-vacant cruise ship pier in Mobile.

"It was important for us to understand more about the population within the drive-market area," Blum said. So the terminal commissioned an independent study by Semoon Chang, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of South Alabama.

The data produced by Chang's study, Blum said, became the basis for a presentation that terminal officials will make to "several cruise lines" this month.

Among Chang's findings is the fact that there are more than 4.5 million people within 400 miles of Mobile with household incomes in the $50,000-plus range. In a separate study using Chang's research, Blum said, 75% of respondents at that income level said they were interested in taking a cruise in the next few years. And of that group, 58% said that their proximity to Mobile would be an "important consideration."

The geographical boundaries used in the population survey did not include New Orleans, since that city is also a cruise port. Blum said the research was focused on the drive market ranging west to Biloxi, Miss., north to Nashville and east to Atlanta.

Agent Bob Bender, owner of Springdale Travel/American Express, in Mobile, said he's been selling berths on the Carnival ships ever since the line began service in Mobile.

"The ship sails full every week," Bender said. "The real question is: Can Carnival Cruise Lines make more money somewhere else? Well, they probably can, and you can't fault them for making a good business decision." But Bender also said that the line "seemed to have no mercy about walking away from a port that built a terminal for them."

Bender said Carnival's fares "were very affordable," adding: "I think they did too much discounting."

Fares for a four-day cruise in August start at $329 per person.

Bender said he believes another cruise line already is taking "a hard look" at Mobile, but he declined to name the line or reveal the source of his information.

Blum said Alabama Cruise Terminal would dangle a considerable carrot when its officials meet with cruise line representatives. The terminal, he said, is operated by PCH Hotels and Resorts, which is owned by the pension fund Retirement Systems of America. Raycom Media is also owned by RSA, and Blum said Raycom will provide marketing funds to a cruise line that commits a ship to Mobile.

It won't be a cash transaction; rather, it will be offered as TV and newspaper marketing through Raycom's outlets, which comprise TV stations across the Southeast and newspapers throughout the Midwest and South, including northern Alabama and southern Georgia.

Blum said the same offer was made to initially lure Carnival. Back then, the marketing funds amounted to about $5 million. It will be considerably more than that this time around, he predicted.

Agents' opinions

But will people really travel from places like Nashville and Atlanta to Mobile to take a cruise? Opinions differ on that, but agent Patricia Everman of Travel Inc. in Nashville thinks not.

"It's a lot longer than a few hours' drive to Mobile; it's nearly 500 miles," she said. "And flying is a hassle. Flights to Mobile are expensive out of Nashville, and most of our clients want to go to a Florida port anyway. There's a lot of nonstop service into Florida cities."

However, Shirley Averett, who runs the Web-only agency Cruisewomen.com out of her home in Smyrna, Ga., said clients in her town, on the outskirts of Atlanta, already "definitely drive to the Panhandle and well beyond" for vacation. Mobile wouldn't be a stretch, she said.

"The airlines have really turned a lot of people off [to the point that] they'd rather drive than hassle with the airports," she said.

Averett predicted Carnival would fare better in New Orleans when the Carnival Elation starts offering cruises in November.

"It's a bullet-proof destination," she said. "New Orleans is myth and magic."

When the Carnival Elation repositions to New Orleans, it will join the 2,974-passenger Carnival Conquest, marking the first time in six years that Carnival Cruise Lines will be operating two ships from the Big Easy.

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