The cruise ship business, which has been a growing feature of the New Orleans tourism sector, now looks less likely to return until at least the end of the year as some operators extend their sailing hiatus into the autumn.
On Monday, Carnival Cruise Line said that Valor, one of the two ships based in New Orleans, will not resume sailing until November at the earliest.
As with other cruise line operators, Carnival has been extending delays to sailings on a rolling basis to reflect the latest expectations in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The last time either Valor or Glory, the two New Orleans-based vessels, sailed with holidaymakers aboard was last March, reflecting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rolling “no sail” order for ships carrying 250 or more passengers.
Disney Cruise Line’s Wonder, which sailed from New Orleans in February, 2020, for the first time, has canceled sailings until at least the end of July. Norwegian Cruise Line said its Norwegian Breakaway will not sail again from New Orleans until at least May.
Cruise ship operators had a number of COVID-19 outbreaks in the early months of the pandemic, including high-profile instances where passengers were held aboard for extended periods of time.
The cruise operators now say they intend to proceed cautiously even after the “no sail” orders have been lifted.
“We will resume service when the time is right, taking a gradual, phased-in approach with select ships,” said Vance Gulliksen, a Carnival spokesman.
Carnival’s two New Orleans-based ships have passenger capacity of about 3,000 each, with another 1,200 crew on each ship. The company accounted for 80% of the record 1.18 million passengers coming and going through the Port of New Orleans for cruise ship travel in 2019.
The moratorium on sailings has been a big economic loss for the city. The Port of New Orleans directly earned $14 million in fees from the ships in 2019, while direct spending by passengers was $110 million.
“In addition to the passenger loss, we miss the thousands of cruise line crew members,” said Kelly Schulz, a spokesperson for New Orleans & Co., which estimates that cruise visitors spend at least one night on average in a city hotel when they come and go.
The cruise industry is estimated to account for about 7% of the city’s hotel bookings and account for around $250 million of total economic impact when including other spending, according to a 2018 study by LSU economists.
The loss is reflected in hotel occupancy numbers, which show that New Orleans is suffering significantly more than the broader U.S. hotel market. The hotel occupancy rate for greater New Orleans in the week ended Jan 16 was down 74% year-on-year at 31%, compared to a 59% drop to 40% for the U.S. as a whole, according to data from STR, which tracks the hotel industry.
The rates for hotel rooms also have dropped precipitously, so that New Orleans revenue per available room was down 80%, compared to 54% for the U.S.
The cruise ship industry is hoping for a strong bounce back next year.
Carnival’s CEO, Arnold Donald, told shareholders earlier this month that the company had pared costs to the bone and moved up ship dry dock schedules this year. But he added that passenger bookings for the first half of 2022 were running ahead of bookings for the first half of 2019, reflecting pent-up demand for cruising.
Schulz said their data shows the same. “From our conversations with travel agents there is a pent up demand for travel to New Orleans, particularly from those who are loyal cruisers,” she said.