Port of N.O. to lose Royal Caribbean ship

The Port of New Orleans is slated to lose its second-largest cruise ship next year, when Royal Caribbean pulls its 2,476-passenger Serenade of the Seas ship out of the city in April 2015, the cruise-ship company revealed this week.

The move leaves the port with three cruise ships. Carnival Cruise Lines operates two: its 3,646-passenger Dream, which primarily sets sail on weeklong trips, and its 2,052-passenger Elation, which travels on four- and five-day itineraries to the Caribbean. The third is Norwegian Cruise Line’s Dawn, a 2,340-passenger ship that offers seasonal, weeklong trips to the Caribbean.

“As part of our ongoing global expansion, Royal Caribbean International is constantly reviewing our deployment opportunities. At this time, we do not have any ships planned for New Orleans in the winter 2015-16 season once Serenade of the Seas departs in April 2015,” Royal Caribbean said in a statement.

Word that New Orleans wasn’t in the company’s future plans became public when the cruise line released its schedule for 2015-16.

Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, said he had worked with the cruise line for the past six months trying to persuade it to stick around. “It’s nothing that was going on here, according to them,” he said. “What it is is an opportunity to perhaps move into another market area. We suspect — we’re not sure, but we suspect — it’s Asia.”

LaGrange said he doesn’t believe the move is a sign that passengers are losing interest in ships traveling from New Orleans. Instead, he believes that passengers traveling to more distant countries are more likely to spend more money and ultimately bolster the cruise companies’ bottom line. He also said the ship could return sometime in the future.

“If they had more ships to deploy, I think that we probably would not be losing this ship for at least one year,” he said. “All that is indicated right now is that they just haven’t renewed the contract for 2015-2016.”

Port officials are working to extend the Carnival and Norwegian deals and to lure other companies to the space being vacated next year by Royal Caribbean.

“We’re in the throes of renegotiating a newer and longer-term contract with Carnival, which we believe would grow the market substantially with additional passengers,” LaGrange said. “I’m not really sure how many, but we think we’re in line possibly for some growth.”

The port operates cruise ship terminals at Erato and Julia streets, and plans for a terminal downriver near Poland Avenue have been discussed for years. Though it is still in the final planning stages, officials are optimistic about breaking ground on that project by late 2016. The $32 million terminal would add capacity for two additional cruise ships each week; the port has about $21 million saved for the project so far, LaGrange said.

The Serenade of the Seas began sailing out of the port late last year, replacing the Navigator of the Seas.

Some who follow the travel industry suggest not jumping to conclusions about New Orleans’ future as a cruise ship port based on Royal Caribbean’s plans.

David Pearlman, an associate professor at the Lester E. Kabacoff School of Hotel, Restaurant & Tourism Administration at the University of New Orleans, said he was surprised by the decision, especially with the new Outlet Collection at the Riverwalk mall recently opening.

The outlet mall, which replaced the Riverwalk Marketplace, features elevators connecting directly to the Julia Street cruise ship terminal beneath it. That allows easy access to the mall for the hundreds of thousands of passengers who set sail from the city each year, officials say.

“I’m pretty surprised, because with that new outlet mall, that would’ve been a natural fit,” Pearlman said.

More than 21 million people are expected to set sail on cruises worldwide this year, according to trade group estimates. Pearlman believes the travel option’s popularity continues to increase because of the “all-inclusive nature, because of the fact that (travelers) don’t have to plan anything, they don’t have to do anything except just show up.”

“There’s so many people that have really wanted to see New Orleans for such a long time, and they can kind of kill two birds with one stone,” he added.

In 2012, a port-commissioned study reported that cruise passengers in New Orleans stay an average of 1.8 nights in local hotels before or after their voyage, contributing $27.9 million annually in direct spending on lodging, food and other expenses. About 87 percent of passengers reported staying overnight in the city.

Still, cruise line itineraries can change as companies look to add new markets. Barcelona, Spain, and Venice, Italy, were cited as attractions when Norwegian moved its 2,018-passenger Norwegian Spirit from New Orleans to Europe in 2012. A company executive said the previous winter had been successful, but the summer — often seen as yielding the priciest reservations — was slow.

Industry followers pointed out that fares on Royal Caribbean, which primarily has weeklong cruises to the Bahamas sailing out of New Orleans through next year, may be more expensive than for its local competitors, starting at more than $500, whereas Carnival’s Dream, a newer, bigger ship, has weeklong trips to the Caribbean starting at about $370.

Carnival brought the first year-round cruise ship to New Orleans in 1994 with its 1,022-passenger Carnival Tropicale. Since then, the ships have continued to get bigger and more grand, and the industry continued to swell until Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. Carnival’s two ships are expected to continue sailing out of the city until at least early 2016.

Overall, bookings to the Caribbean are expected to account for about 37 percent of the industry’s worldwide market share in 2014, up about 3 percent from 2013, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group. That’s far larger than the Asia market, pegged at about 4 percent in 2014.

“People just love to come here, and they can extend their cruise by spending a couple nights in our hotels,” LaGrange said. “That’s a huge enhancement.”

LaGrange said about 25,000 people pass through the port’s terminals on a full weekend, and adding the Poland Avenue facility would tack on another 12,000.

The port’s pitch to enticing Royal Caribbean to stay included the promise of sending the port’s marketing staff on the road to attract interest among travelers elsewhere in the South and the Midwest.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.