Miss. coast moving to attract cruise business

Published 1:11 pm Tuesday, June 2, 2009

New Orleans and Mobile are profiting from cruise ships, and experts think a cruise line will one day set sail from Gulfport on a regular schedule.

There is much work to be done before that day, they said during a seminar at last month’s Southern Gaming Summit — most notably construction of a new port and more hotel rooms, restaurants and family attractions on the Coast.

“We’ve got to get a place to park it first,” said Jim Simpson, a commissioner with the Port of Gulfport. “We’ve got the money. We’re moving as fast as we can.”

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The focus of the new port is on shipbuilding, but consultants creating the business plan are also dealing with cruise ships.

Simpson said it will take five to seven years to complete the first phase of the new port. When the Coast builds a destination market and lands a cruise ship line, “There’ll be a place for them when they want to come.”

Paul Girvan is managing director of The Innovation Group in New Orleans, which does feasibility studies for casinos, government agencies, theme park developers and other companies.

He said the keys to landing a cruise ship will be good airline connections with low-cost, direct flights, top-quality hotels at low cost, more entertainment and attractions, rapid access to the port, an efficient cruise terminal and low port fees.

He said about 40 percent of cruise-ship passengers will stay at the port city the night before or after the cruise. The casinos already have 95 percent occupancy on the weekends and with those rooms filled with casino patrons, he thinks Gulfport would need to shift the ship schedules to midweek so they won’t displace the gamblers.

Getting passengers off a weekend start for a cruise is difficult, said Robert Sturges, president of Nevada Gold and Casinos.

“They want to begin and end on a weekend typically,” he said.

At New Orleans, Carnival’s four- or five-day cruises start on Thursday, Saturday or Monday and Gary LaGrange, president of the Port of New Orleans, said 78 percent of the passengers drive in from as far away as Illinois and Minnesota. From the East and West coasts they tend to fly in, he said, and the longer cruises are bringing people from Europe.

LaGrange said New Orleans markets its cruises as two vacations in one — a cruise and a trip to New Orleans. Before Gulfport could do that, he said the city needs to broaden its scope beyond casinos.

Sturges said cruise lines don’t want their passengers to spend their money at the coast casinos before they get on the ship, and passengers are actually looking for amenities at the port that are different from what is offered on the cruise ships.

The coast has fishing, golfing and historical attractions, the panelists said, yet they suggested building attractions for the younger generation, more big-name restaurants and great retail shopping, entertainment and hotel rooms.

New Orleans has about 20,000 rooms compared with about 7,000 in the Gulfport-Biloxi area, said Girvan.

A number of private developers are looking at the possibility of a port as just one element that would bring them to the coast, and he said at least two or three major casino projects are just waiting for the credit market to turn around. They will add significant hotel rooms to the market, he said.

The magic number the cruise lines want the community to have is 20,000 rooms, said Tom Sawyer, senior vice president of gaming and hospitality with Beecher Carlson Corp. in Gulfport.

“They very much like the airport,” he added. “The cruise industry and airlines love each other.”

He thinks a cruise ship will bring more direct flights to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. New Orleans has about 120 flights a day, compared with about 25 at Gulfport. He said the proximity of an airport to a dock is important to cruise passengers and Gulfport may be the closest airport to a port of anywhere in the United States.

“The economic impact is incredible,” Sawyer said, not just from the passengers but from the crews who bump up business at stores in port cities by 20 percent when the boats dock.

Local jobs are created for baggage handlers, taxi drivers and those who supply products such as food and beverages to the ships.

“It’s like being a small city within a city,” said LaGrange.

When a ship docks, there are 6,000 people at the docks in 12 hours, including the departing and arriving passengers and the crew. In New Orleans the cruise passengers spend $332 per day and spend an average of 1.9 nights in local hotels.

He said the cruise-ship industry is thriving in Mobile, which is more of a drive-in market than New Orleans. However the impact on the local economy isn’t as great as it is in New Orleans, he said, because there isn’t the same draw of attractions and restaurants.

Gulfport will have much easier access for the ships than New Orleans. But LaGrange said the cruise-ship operators have taken advantage of the time it takes to navigate the Mississippi River on the way to the Gulf.

“They’re actually now conducting eco-tours on their way down the river,” he said.

New Orleans continues to invest millions in terminals, parking and amenities. A terminal in Gulfport will cost about $50 million to build, said Sawyer.

With that kind of investment, Simpson said the port will need to partner with cruise-ship lines to build a terminal.

“We should focus more on developing the other activities,” he said. “If everything else is here, I think the cruise ships will come.”