Mobile area businesses wait for the return of cruise ships
An APR news feature
The city of Mobile may have a few more hoops to jump through regarding the future of the cruise ship industry. The CDC is considering what COVID-19 rules to impose on passenger ships. Another possible wrinkle is a new state law in Alabama that outlaws coronavirus passports that prove someone has had their shots. Mobile area businesses that depend on cruise ship passengers for their livelihood are watching and waiting as well.
It was a festive day three weeks ago as the Carnival Sensation made its way into the port of Mobile. The visit was only a few hours to allow crew members to be vaccinated for COVID-19. But a ship docking at the Mobile Cruise Terminal for the first time in more than a year was reason to celebrate and hope that the ship will be back taking on passengers soon.
“We’re pretty excited as is as is everybody down here at Gulfquest where the ship is docked now,” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said.
He was among the crowd watching from the observation deck of adjacent Gulfquest Museum.
“The Excelsior Band has been playing,” Stimpson said. “The Azalea Trail Maids, the USS Alabama crewmates are here. It’s a reason to celebrate and we’re doing it right this morning welcoming them back."
The Sensation is scheduled to replace the Carnival Fantasy as the ship sailing from Mobile. The Sensation is the same model ship as the Fantasy, but has been remodeled to include things like balconies to a sushi bar.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cruiseship sailings may be allowed by July if almost all the crews and passengers are vaccinated. APR asked Carnival about possible sailings from Mobile. A company spokesman responded with an email. It read that Carnival is looking forward to sailing from Mobile again but has not set a date for cruises to resume. Mayor Stimpson says Mobile rates well with Carnival and its passengers.
“It’s an ongoing process of making sure that every time a ship and the passengers embark and debark that they have a great experience and our team that’s in charge of that, they receive on an ongoing basis some of the highest ratings within the Carnival system,” Stimpson said.
The Mayor said Mobile would like to expand the Alabama cruise industry. One possibility is to become not only a port where cruises embark, but bringing in passengers for day visits.
“We are a port of origin right now,” the mayor said. “We would love to be a destination port where customers get off the ship, come into Mobile and shop and dine and whatever.”
Cruising isn’t just a chance for an excursion in Mobile. It’s a major factor in the economy, particularly one recovering from the setbacks from COVID-19.
“Really our economy would be running on all eight cylinders again, we need the cruise ships coming back on a regular schedule because that will impact so many of our businesses, not just downtown commerce, but the people that supply the ships, so it’s a big deal for our economy,” Stimpson said.
“It means a lot from an economic standpoint for our lodging partners, 35,000 plus hotel-room nights annually,” said David Clark, president of Visit Mobile, the city convention and visitors bureau.
He said cruising is a big part of Mobile’s tourism industry.
“Our restaurants, our attractions, our retail, 200,000 people coming in your front door every year is a big deal and so we’re just real thankful for our partnership with Carnvial and we have and exciting future ahead of us,” Clark said.
"I don’t know. It’s all a big mess. I need cruises to start back as soon as possible, so fingers crossed that it all works out,” Angela Gray said.
She operates one of those Mobile businesses that depends on cruises. Business has been slow since sailings stopped.
“I’ve pretty much been dead in the water for the last 14 months because we do the T-shirts and the banners and the gear for all the cruisers going on the cruises,” Gray said. “So, they normally get their family T-shirts or their souvenir T-shirts that has all of their cruise information on it and people are leery to buy it if they have a cruise booked. They’re leery to buy anything if we don’t know when cruises are going to start. So that’s been a big blow to us because if they’re not sailing, they’re not buying.”
Like many business operators in the last year, Gray has tried to diversify, but without much success.
“I have spent so much time and energy over the years that my clientele is cruise based and that’s all my customers want,” Gray said. “I tried to be creative and offer different things but they’re only interested in cruise stuff. We tried to make some non-cruise specific things to try to keep our business afloat so I didn’t have to completely shut down during this time, but we’re coming to the end of, with no revenue coming in to help keep the business going I don’t know how much longer we would be able to make it if they didn’t start back pretty soon."
Gray said that she, like many of her fellow Mobilians, is ready to set sail.
“I do think it’s a positive impact for Mobile,” she said. “People are ready to cruise. Many people are already vaccinated with their bags packed saying let’s do this. Let’s get it. They’re ready to get on there.”