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With Conquest, facility has proven it can accommodate ships and passengers

State Port working to recruit cruise industry

GULFPORT — The location advantage is the State Port’s biggest asset for bringing cruise ships here, and the cruise industry is looking for alternatives to established cruise markets. That’s the word from the port’s executive director Don Allee, who’s optimistic about this venture.

“I won’t predict how long it will be, but when the time is absolutely right and it’s a win-win situation, a cruise ship will locate here,” he said. “The worst thing is to bring one in and have it fail.”

Regarding the Gulfport location, he noted the port’s deep channel that is easily navigated. It’s unlike the eight or more hours it takes a cruise liner to come up from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Port of New Orleans.

“New Orleans is a success story, but when the Conquest docked here temporarily last year, instead of New Orleans, it was able to stay in port longer because it didn’t have to negotiate that slow process,” he said.

The Conquest, one of the Carnival line’s largest vessels, was diverted to Gulfport for 18 visits in 2003 due to high river stages and low lying power lines at their homeport in New Orleans. The Mississippi State Port proved it could accommodate a cruise ship and its passengers. Local tourism and retail establishments were pleased with the flow of visitors and cash.

“The Port Commission and the community are behind our efforts 100% to bring the industry here, and I’m confident we have everything in place to be successful,” Allee said. “We have an obligation to the community and great things will happen.”

In addition to the easily navigated location, the port is considered a safe place and it is growing. Allee said the port is close to being at capacity and will create more space for the West Terminal with a 60-acre landfill.

“We have proven we can pleasantly blend commercial shipping and the cruise/entertainment industry. We have demonstrated we can do that,” he said. “We have the Copa and Grand Casinos located at the port.”

The cruise industry is a segment of marine transportation that is growing everywhere and especially in the Gulf of Mexico.

Coast a ‘logical place’ for growth

Steve Richer, executive director of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, said, “There are more ships coming into the gulf than when I came here eight years ago. The Gulf Coast is becoming more popular, so this is the logical place to become a market for the cruise industry.”

He said that element will benefit the tourism momentum that continues to grow on the Mississippi Coast.

“Our turn will come. We’re pursuing it and doing so in a logical way,” he added. “There is a lot of community support for it after we saw the impact of having the Conquest here.”

The logical way to which he refers is the recruitment plan commissioned by the port to address the specifics of bringing the cruise industry to Mississippi. A Florida-based cruise development consultant, Gee & Jenson, has a six-month contract to do an analysis and complete a master plan for the port.

“From this, we will have a long-range master plan with a strategy for cruise development,” Allee said. “It will address specific questions such as, what passenger projections we can expect and how many sailings we can expect with the space we have.”

The plan will allow the port to make sound economic decisions by addressing the resources needed to lure the industry here and how best to leverage any improvements that are made.

“We don’t want to make improvements without specific facts and figures,” the port director said. “How we will pay for improvements is most important.”

He points to the City of Mobile, Ala., which recently entered into an agreement with Carnival Cruise Lines for its Holiday cruise ship. The city is using $20 million from state retirement funds to build a 66,000-square-foot facility that must be complete by September. In return, they get a 12-month commitment that amounts to eighty sailings.

“In addition to the $20 million, there’s the debt service and cost of insurance,” Allee said. “They think it will pay to take that risk. We’re not in a position to offer $20 million for that return.”

Working together

Allee, who came to Mississippi two and a half years ago from the Port of Beaumont, Texas, is on the port advisory board of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, an organization that represents all the major cruise lines. He said the State Port became a member to network and exchange information with the cruise lines.

“Having a network of communication with the major cruise lines is a big thing,” he said. “We keep them apprised of improvements here.”

A coalition of representatives of the State Port, Harrison County Tourism Commission, the Gulfport Mayor’s office, the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport and the Harrison County Board of Supervisors recently participated in Sea Trade, a large industry conference held in Miami.

“It will take all the entities to satisfy the demands of this industry but the community is looking to the port to be the leader,” Allee said. “There is positive communication and we talk to all of them.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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