PHOTO: The Caribbean Princess docked at the Bayport Cruise Terminal in Houston. (Courtesy of the Port of Houston Authority)
Houston is officially a cruise homeport once again. The Bayport Cruise Terminal, which had remained virtually empty since its completion in 2009, finished its first full season of operations two weeks ago and next winter will be home to two cruise ships.
Princess Cruises' 3,082-passenger Caribbean Princess just wrapped up its first winter season from Houston, carrying about 80,000 passengers, and will return for winter 2015-16. Next winter, sister ship Emerald Princess will be based in Houston. The ships operate Western Caribbean cruises to ports such as Roatan, Belize City, Cozumel, Costa Maya, and Grand Cayman.
What's more, Norwegian Cruise Line's 2,374-passenger Norwegian Jewel will move to Houston in October for a season of seven-day Western Caribbean voyages to Cozumel, Belize City and Banana Coast, the new cruise facility on mainland Honduras.
Norwegian has agreed to operate out of the Houston cruise terminal for three years, with an option to extend for one or two more years.
The two companies are expected to attract more than 400,000 passengers from 2013 to 2017 and generate an economic impact of $50 million annually, according to a port study done by Martin and Associates.
All this is very welcome news to port and tourism officials. "I'm beyond excited," said Ricky Kunz, managing director of trade development and marketing for the Port of Houston Authority.
Houston built the 96,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art cruise terminal in Pasadena, Texas, after its cruise business blossomed in the late 1990s. Norwegian, in fact, pioneered the cleverly named "Texaribbean" cruises from Houston in 1997 and operated from a facility at Barbours Cut until 2001. Norwegian again sailed from Houston from 2003 until April 2007.
But by the time the new cruise terminal was finished, the cruise ships were gone. Ships headed to more lucrative regions as the economy foundered or instead chose to homeport at Galveston Island, which is a longer drive from the Houston airports but closer to the open sea. Galveston now ranks as the No. 4 cruise homeport in the U.S., according to a July 2013 study commissioned by the Cruise Lines International Association.
However, as cruise lines expanded their fleet and sought out new homeports, Houston re-emerged. "With the growth of our capacity … we can expand our existing fleet into new homeports," Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan said in announcing the Houston deployment. "We listened to the feedback from our travel partners and guests who have been requesting our return to Houston."
It helps that the Bayport Cruise Terminal, although completed several years ago, is essentially a brand-new facility. Houston also sparked attention with aggressive incentive packages.
"We made them a deal they couldn't refuse," Kunz said. "They've got everything they want and desire. And now we're tweaking those items where we see a bit of an issue. We're building more parking because we do have a large drive-in market."
In fact, the drive-in market is bigger than expected. He said one-third of Princess passengers this past winter drove to Houston, many from other parts of Texas and neighboring states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas. One-third flew in and another third were dropped off.
To encourage pre- and post-cruise land stays, Houston is promoting its cultural arts scene, world-class museums, great shopping, first-class hotels and diverse restaurants to cruisers. It's a sophisticated city - the fourth-largest in the country - with a lot to see and do, while Galveston gives off a beachy, quirkier vibe.
When the Norwegian Jewel does arrive in Houston on Oct. 11, it will have several new features added during a just-completed dry-dock renovation. Among the additions are O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill, the Sugarcane Mojito Bar, and Carlo's Bake Shop by Buddy Valastro, star of TLC's "Cake Boss." The ship also will be spruced up with new carpeting and flooring, and digital touch-screen signage will be installed.
The rebirth of cruising from Houston is reason enough for locals to celebrate. But this fall, the port will mark another milestone - the 100th anniversary of the Houston Ship Channel, which opened the same year as the Panama Canal. Celebratory events will take place in September, October and November. "I'm sure we'll shoot off a few fireworks," Kunz said.
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