Cruise ships will be returning to the Port of Houston in 2013 and beyond. The port's new $108 million Bayport Cruise Terminal in Pasadena, TX, has sat empty since being completed in 2008, but now Princess Cruises (www.princess.com) plans 27 departures for the 2013-2014 season while Norwegian Cruise Line (www.norwegian.com) plans to make 75 calls in Houston over the course of three years.
Travel Agent asked a sample of trade experts for their feedback about the new cruises.What's the draw for clients? How does the development of Houston's cruise business impact agents?
“Now that Norwegian has added more ships to its fleet, it is able to berth a ship at a new home port and Port of Houston is fortunate to have won them over,” says Elena Pelsinger of Travel Leaders (www.travelleaders.com/westhoustontx) in Houston, who also says "it's about time the [new terminal] investment will pay off."
Pelsinger hopes Norwegian Jewel as a Freestyle Cruising ship might attract more cruisers from the Houston area. That could mean more business for her agency and others.
She says most of her agency's past business has gone to Carnival Cruise Lines (www.goccl.com) or Royal Caribbean International (www.cruisingpower.com), both of which sail from Galveston, TX, about 50 miles south of Houston. Carnival is the only year-round operator from Texas.
“It is only this year that Disney and Princess have come back to the Galveston area and caused a great sensation with choices for our clients,” Pelsinger says.
While ships sailing from Houston have a longer transit to the sea than do those sailing from coastal Galveston, embarkation at Houston is often more convenient for passengers. “The Port of Houston is closer to both Houston airports - Bush Intercontinental and Hobby,” notes Pelsinger.
Another perk for Houston home porting? “Both Houston and Galveston are convenient to large drive markets, and the entire Southern belt as well as the Midwest will benefit from these particular departure ports,” says Scott Koepf, vice president of sales, Avoya Travel/American Express (www.avoyatravel.com).
Koepf believes homeport cruising from the Texas ports provides a huge advantage as there are more opportunities for a significant population base to affordably reach a port location.
Similarly, Stephanie Flemings, Corporate Travel Planners (www.ctptravelservices.com), a branch of Tzell Travel/Travel Leaders, San Antonio, TX, says: “It's clear that cruisers from the South sail from Texas because they can save money on airfare by driving to the port, but we may start seeing a lot more folks from the Midwest area too, again, since it's closer option than the Florida ports.”
From Flemings’ perspective, “I think the single most important draw of a Princess and Norwegian cruise from Houston is our clients will have more options to choose from, with two new ships and hopefully new itineraries and ports-of-call.”
In addition, for air travelers from the West Coast, an embarkation from Texas is far easier – and less time consuming - than one from ports further east, according to Christy Jourdan of Ships and Trips Travel (www.shipsandtripstravel.com/christy/), Sacramento, CA.
She says most of her clients live in the Sacramento area, so she's always excited when she learns about cruise ships moving westward for home porting. She first sailed out of Houston in 1998, when Norwegian introduced its “Texaribbean” itinerary with visits to Cancun, Cozumel and Roatan.
"We left Sacramento (SMF) airport about 6:30 a.m. for Houston on a non-stop Continental flight and were on the ship by noon," Jourdan says. "It was seamless."
In addition, “while Galveston is a fun little town and a cool cruise port, sailing out of Bayport [Houston] cuts the time spent in a shuttle bus from the Houston airport in half," Jourdan stresses, echoing Pelsinger's comments about the ease of airport-to-port access.
Margie Jordan, president and CEO, Jordan Executive Travel Service, (http://jets-inc.com) Jacksonville, FL thinks any introduction of a cruise line back into a market is a good idea: “It makes the availability of this experience of sailing on Norwegian or Princess more accessible to clients that either love the product or have wanted to experience it.”
She does hope the cruise lines consider expanding more to her port destination as well. “My only wish is that they'd look closely at making Jacksonville [as] Florida's next big cruise port,” said Jordan. “We have an audience just waiting to be tapped.”
Ruth and John Shaw, Cruise Planners/American Express (www.cruiseplannersonline.com), Lake Lure, NC, previously sailed and also had groups on both lines when Norwegian sailed from the old terminal at the Port of Houston and Princess previously sailed from Galveston.
“We always had clients who loved both of those lines, even when it was one of NCL's oldest ships,” said John Shaw. “We were fortunate to have one of Princess' newest at that time, the Grand Princess.”
Ruth Shaw noted that the new terminal at Bayport was built and then sat idle for a few years. “Now, it's time to show off that new terminal as well as having two great, exciting ships,” she said. “There will be more jobs, more tourists, more shopping in the area.”
Yet, some agents still believe Galveston will continue to shine as a home port, no matter what’s happening with the Port of Houston.
Having been to and sailed from both ports, Janet Hoes, Travel Leaders, Fort Worth, TX, says the draw for Galveston is the availability of hotels and shopping and sightseeing all within walking distance of the pier.
“The pier in Houston is right in the middle of shipping warehouses and is very industrial,” Hoes says. “The only hotel nearby is more of a truck stop, however, the boardwalk at Kemah is fairly close as is the NASA space center.”
Hoes also says ships sailing from Houston must sail out of the Texas channel, which can have rough water, so ships have to travel slower. Personally, Hoes prefers sailing from Galveston, although she acknowledges the port of Houston is closer and easier to reach.
Flemings says that while the driving distance to the new Houston terminal is shorter than to Galveston for many, “in the same breath, Galveston Island is great place for pre/post cruise add-ons and we might lose a little of that business for those who sail from Port of Houston.”
Since Carnival sails year-round from Galveston, Flemings says that will also naturally impact some clients’ decisions on which embarkation port to choose, depending on their sail date.
But “with more Texas sailings to choose from [at both ports], I definitely think the cruise market will get a boost, Flemings stresses. “At least we're hoping it will!”
Will additional sailings from Houston help your business? Will the new sailings benefit your clients? Is Galveston or Houston a better option from your perspective?
What other home ports would you like to see expand or develop? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section below.