Sunday, August 13, 2006

What if they build it and nobody comes?

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

The mood was festive. The music lively. The videos and power-point presentations brimming with superlatives. The theme: "Simply the best.''
We had been summoned to the Hilton Americas Hotel to celebrate the development of the Port of Houston's Bayport cruise terminal, due for completion in late summer or early fall of 2007.

Consuls general from Pakistan, Jordan, Honduras and other nations were there. Ditto elected officials from throughout the Houston area. Some of our community's premier travel agents looked on. The chairman of the International Council of Cruise Lines presided.

"Are you excited yet?'' Wade Battles, the port's managing director, revved up the audience, which responded with loud applause.

Only one ingredient was noticeable missing from this gumbo of good vibes:

There was no mention of a ship.

When I asked Battles about commitments once the new terminal opens, he reiterated what he told me six months ago: Discussions are ongoing with several cruise lines. He's optimistic. Nothing is firm.

NCL moving out?

Here's what I know: Norwegian Cruise Line, which operates the one passenger ship based seasonally at the port's Barbours Court facility, will return its Norwegian Dream to Houston this winter. But next summer the Dream will sail in Europe; the following winter, it will be based in South America.

Like NCL, most other cruise lines have announced fleet deployments for next summer and fall and into 2008. Houston isn't included on any calendar.

Could the port christen a multimillion dollar cruise terminal without a ship? Battles seemed to bristle at my concerns.

"Not every line has finalized their plans,'' he said.

So did he still have hope of attracting new business for the terminal's opening?

"I would use a stronger word than hope,'' Battles responded.

What word would that be?

"I'd say that negotiations are ongoing with a lot of cruise lines. We think there is a real opportunity."

Impressive facility

Do you sense a conversation going in circles? Maybe the port is relying on the "If we build it, they will come'' approach. Or maybe Battles is being coy. Based on the images I've seen, this will be a traveler-friendly facility with considerable appeal. Features will include close-in parking, covered walkways, a VIP lounge and - Battles promises - quick embarkation and debarkation.

"Our terminal will be unique,'' Battles vowed at the Hilton Americas gathering. "We're going to bring people closer to the ship. We want to ensure that the first and last impression cruise passengers have is a positive one.

"The Port of Houston is poised to enter a new chapter in cruising,'' Battles said.

There is justification for a significant investment. Cruising from Texas generated a $934 million economic impact last year, according to the cruise lines council. More than 650,000 Texans took a cruise (counting departures from Texas and elsewhere).

But the vast majority of that business was at the Port of Galveston. Three vessels sail year-round from the island, and the Galveston fleet will number five ships this winter with a combined capacity of almost 12,000 passenger berths. (The Norwegian Dream, the smallest cruise ship based in Texas, holds 1,732 passengers.)

Galveston losses, gains

Galveston, too, is a port in transition. Celebrity Cruises' Galaxy, a fixture for two winters, is not returning. Princess Cruises' Grand Princess will sail from the island again this winter but not in 2007-2008, though port director Steve Cernak expects only a one-year absence.

More positive is the confirmed arrival for the 2007-2008 winter season of Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, which will join the Carnival Conquest in giving Galveston two ships capable of carrying 3,000 or more passengers - a Texas first.

"We're strengthening our position, and we're going to continue to grow,'' Cernak said at another recent ICCL-sponsored gathering aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' Galveston-based Ecstasy.

As he spoke, there was no music. No applause. But there was a ship.

No comments: