Gulf Coast departures exceed capacity jumps

NEW YORK -- Cruising's unprecedented capacity growth in the last 10 years has led operators to expand itineraries beyond the segment's core routes.

But the growing number of ships operating from U.S. Gulf Coast ports can be linked to several factors, only one of which is the rapid expansion of cruise fleets.

Cruise deployment at three such ports -- Galveston, Texas; New Orleans, and Tampa, Fla. -- accelerated last month with announcements of expanded service from the industry's largest and second-largest suppliers, Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises.

Next December, Carnival Cruise Lines will expand its presence in New Orleans, the largest of the ports, by bringing in its newest ship, the 110,000-ton Carnival Conquest, for year-round western Caribbean cruises.

The New Orleans deployment of the 2,976-passenger Conquest, under construction in Italy, will increase Carnival's capacity in the Crescent City by 45%. Carnival currently serves New Orleans with the 2,052-passenger Inspiration.

"Carnival's growth in New Orleans has been phenomenal," said Bob Dickinson, Carnival's president. He said Carnival's decision to deploy its largest ship there "speaks volumes to our confidence in expanding this important cruise market."

Celebration was the first Carnival ship to offer year-round cruises from Galveston. Carnival will deploy a second ship in Galveston for a year-round series of cruises to Mexican ports beginning in August 2002.

Carnival launched service from Galveston last September with the 1,486-passenger Celebration, which offers four- and five-day cruises to Cozumel and Calica, Mexico.

In less than 10 months, said Port of Galveston officials, Celebration has hosted nearly 100,000 vacationers, and every cruise has sailed at 100% capacity. Next year, Carnival will offer three departures a week from Galveston, with an expected annual passenger load of 240,000.

Finally, Carnival's expansion plans in New Orleans and Galveston will lead the line to increase its capacity at Tampa.

Beginning next December, Inspiration (which will leave New Orleans upon Conquest's arrival) will re-position to Tampa to offer year-round western Carib- bean cruises. Inspiration will replace Sensation, which will continue to sail from Tampa but will move from weekly western Caribbean cruises to four- and five-day voyages beginning Aug. 25, 2002.

Sensation, in turn, will replace Jubilee, which will reposition to Galveston. Sensation's redeployment represents a 38% capacity increase for that program.

In all, Carnival expects to carry 293,000 guests a year from Tampa.

Cruising's second-largest operator, Royal Caribbean, is also expanding its service along the Gulf Coast.

New Orleans, located on the Mississippi River, is considered a Gulf Coast port. Earlier this year, the line launched its first regular Gulf Coast series, with six-, seven- and eight-day cruises departing from Tampa, Galveston and New Orleans aboard the 2,000-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas.

Beginning next year, Royal Caribbean will expand its deployment in the region with a second ship, the 1,950-passenger Grandeur of the Seas.

Grandeur will replace Rhapsody of the Seas on seven-day western Caribbean itineraries departing from New Orleans and Tampa. (Passengers have the option of embarking and disembarking at either port.)

Meanwhile, Rhapsody will sail regularly from Galveston on a new itinerary.

The industry's increased focus on the Gulf Coast comes during the biggest fleet-building cycle in cruise history.

But the Gulf Coast capacity increase slated to begin next year is due as much to changing consumer travel patterns and the cruise lines' desire to develop new passenger markets as to capacity growth.

Locating ships outside the traditional cruise ports in south Florida makes the vessels accessible to a broader range of first-time cruisers because potential vacationers across the southern and southeastern U.S can easily reach ports like Galveston, New Orleans and Tampa by car. Many of these new passengers are reluctant to fly to Miami or Fort Lauderdale to, in effect, try out an unfamiliar vacation form.

"If you look at Tampa, New Orleans and Galveston, you have a wide range of people to draw from who will drive into the port," said Bob Wall, owner of Vacations at Sea in New Orleans. "It's a very common thing in this part of the country to drive to Houston to see a sporting event or to Orlando."

Indeed, as in other Gulf Coast ports, vacationers in and around the New Orleans region have reacted enthusiastically to having a large, modern cruise ship within driving distance, said Wall.

"People are very excited," he said. "Most of the time [New Orleans] gets the 'second-hand rose' ships. We moved very quickly to book groups when Carnival announced Conquest would home port here, and already the first sailing is sold out for group bookings."

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