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The "ups and downs" of Mobile's cruise industry

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APR's Guy Busby
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The COVID-19 pandemic kept the cruise ship industry on hold along the Alabama Gulf coast for two years. That all changed when a Carnival passenger ship sailed from Mobile this month. That’s the good news for the local tourism industry. The bad news is that cruise trips may not go on beyond this Fall.

Cruises in Mobile have a history of ups and downs. Carnival began cruises in 2002 and the city was named Carnival’s Port of the Year in 2007. Things turned sour in 2014 when Carnival announced it was leaving Mobile. A glimmer of hope came in 2016 when cruises resumed. Skip forward to 2020 when COVID shut down the cruise industry.

The Carnival Ecstasy sailed from Mobile on the first weekend of March. However, the line announced that cruises will be seasonal. Sailings will stop later this year and not resume again until October of 2023. Carnival may have some good news, however, when cruises resume. By that, the company means a bigger ship is coming.

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“It is 82,000 tons versus the Ecstasy that’s sailing at 72,000 tons right now, so a little bit bigger, but definitely a newer ship,” said Megan Huffman, Carnival’s director business development.

“Next year, in 2023, we’re going to bring the Carnival Spirit to do a six-night and an eight-night itinerary out of Mobile to give some different itineraries, some new choices, some longer cruises and this will be happening in fall of 2023,” she contended.

By comparison, the battleship USS Alabama moored nearby is 38,000 tons. Huffman says the future of cruising from Mobile is off to a good start.

“It’s going really well,” said Huffman. Two weeks ago, we came in and had a bid celebration for our restart cruises. The Carnival Ecstasy is sailing very successfully. She does a four-day cruise and a five-day cruise. The guests have been very excited. One of the first cruises was part of our meet-ups. So, they met up with other ships in the middle of the ocean, which is a pretty amazing feat.”

Observers of the cruise industry are taking a wait and see attitude when it comes to the future of Carnival and the port of Mobile.

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“So, if they show a strong support, if they’re able to get a good fare, then Carnival will certainly want to do everything it can to be able to return,” said Stewart Chiron, a national cruise expert. He’s sometimes known as ‘The Cruise Guy.’

“The future of cruising in Mobile will depend on what occurs and what the responses are from the people in Mobile and the outlying communities and how they support the ship that’s currently there,” Chiron said.

Chiron says that while seasonal sailings might be a disappointment to some, the fact that Carnival plans to bring in the Spirit is a sign that the line has high hopes for the Mobile.

“Let me tell you Carnival Spirit is a significant upgrade over the Fantasy class ships that Mobile has had in the past. It’s a larger, more modern class. It’s a widely used ship design and Carnival cruise line has five of them in that class and it’s a very nice ship.

Chiron says some of Mobile’s advantages include its location and people.

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“The people of Mobile are as kind as you’ll see in any port and they’re very supportive of their ship.” Chiron observed. “The mayor there, he’s just been steadfast in doing everything possible to ensure that at least one cruise line sails there and he’s certainly been actively working over the years to try to get more cruise lines to bring a ship to Mobile. The city really needs to look at marketing itself or having travel agents locally market Carnival to people in other communities. Let’s say into Georgia, even into the Carolinas and other areas because Mobile is the closest port that they have to be able to get to the Caribbean. So, people leaving out of Charleston, people leaving out of Jacksonville for the most part, just get to the Bahamas and Mobile has Caribbean access.”

Chiron says a good response could mean more sailings out of Mobile.

“It's something that should differentiate Mobile from the other ports to show that it’s aggressively looking at opportunities to be able to show Carnival that they can support a nice ship, that they can support a newer ship. Hopefully, it there’s enough response, is it possible that Carnival could see a very strong response now through, what it is, October? That they can turn around and maybe instead of being seasonal they’ll be able to go back to year-round.”

Mobile also faces challenges, such as its proximity to the larger cruise port in New Orleans and continued COVID precautions.

“The only downside for Mobile at this point is they are still requiring vaccinated passengers,” Chiron thought. “So, that could pose a problem because I understand that there in Alabama, they have a much lower vaccination rate than other states do. So if they’re not vaccinated, that’s going to be an issue getting passengers on board.”

“I think that demand is picking up,” said David Clark. He’s CEO of Visit Mobile, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. He says residents and visitors are ready to sail again.

“People want to cruise again and we’re back to fun<’ Clark said. “The Ecstasy is going to be here all the way through October. Some great cruise opportunities. I’m expecting it to be 100 percent as usual pretty soon with every sailing going out and I think too it’s exciting with the announcement of the following year the Carnival Spirit coming back.

Clark says plans for longer cruises and more passengers on the Carnival Spirit offer new opportunities for the city and tourism.

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“We’re going to go to places that we’ve never gone before, to the Bahamas, to Bimini, to Belize,” Clark said. “I think longer six- and eight-day itineraries are going to be tremendous in the future and for Carnival, I think it speaks well of their confidence in cruising from Mobile. And, yes, I’ve heard a negative that you’re only going to be six months or seasonal, but we’re still in good company even with that with Seattle, New York, San Francisco. We have a great drive demographic. So, maybe it becomes 12 months a year.

Carnival recently marked its 50th birthday with a celebration in Mobile. Megan Huffman with the Cruise ship company says the line has high hopes for the future in the Port City.

“We’re looking forward to the next 50 years of partnerships and hopefully we can get the port of Mobile another port of the year for Carnival as we continue sailing. The guests have been very happy. If you see any of the videos on embarkation day, you can see people are all smiles. They’re ready to get back and ready to get back cruising from Mobile,” Huffman said.

Guy Busby is an Alabama native and lifelong Gulf Coast resident. He has been covering people, events and interesting occurrences on America’s South Coast for more than 20 years. His experiences include riding in hot-air balloons and watching a ship being sunk as a diving reef. His awards include a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists as part of the APR team on the series “Oil and Water,” on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Some of his other interests include writing, photography and history. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Silverhill.
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