More than half a dozen ships and 100,000 passengers have been affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which recently tore up the Gulf Coast. The hurricanes hit popular home port cruising grounds, including New Orleans and Galveston, Texas, disrupting ships and passengers' travel plans for months to come.
Every cruiser may feel the effect of this year's Gulf disasters. Available berths are limited for the rest of this year, travel agents say, and bargains are hard to find as prices continue to increase into next year. Those who had been booked on canceled cruises often are paying more to sail this fall.
"It has been difficult to find space at a similar price and time," said Karen Reynolds, director of customer service for National Leisure Group, which owns Cruises Only, a large cruise retailer based in Woburn, Mass.
The effect of this year's hurricanes has left some in the cruise industry questioning the future of cruising from the region.
As one of the newer home ports, New Orleans had experienced a boom in cruising in the last few years, with passenger counts increasing from 288,000 in 2003 to 327,000 in 2004, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group. But now major lines with ships there have shifted them to Galveston and Houston, and Tampa, Miami and Port Canaveral in Florida.
Carnival, the world's largest cruise conglomerate, has announced that only one of its ships is returning to New Orleans and not until late October 2006. The line has moved the Carnival Conquest from New Orleans to Galveston for the "foreseeable future," said a Carnival spokesman, and is transferring another out of the Gulf altogether.
It also canceled cruises on three ships for six months to charter them to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house relief workers and evacuees.
So far, the only company resuming cruises from New Orleans this year is RiverBarge Excursion Lines. Its 198-passenger River Explorer is to arrive in late November as planned for its winter and spring itineraries from New Orleans to Cajun country and coastal areas of Texas. Delta Queen Steamboat Co.'s paddle-wheelers may return next March. But no large ship is scheduled to resume cruises from New Orleans until October 2006. Mobile, Ala., which was home port to the Carnival Holiday, leased to FEMA, won't see cruise departures until late March.
"No one anticipates Gulf cruising to be as strong in the next year [as it has been this year]," said Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week. He thinks cruise executives may be taking a wait-and-see attitude because it's too early to determine what effect the disaster may have on next year's bookings during hurricane season, which officially runs June 1 to Nov. 30. "We're not going to know until the end of January if there's an impact on the Caribbean next fall."
That's because of "wave season," a traditional period of heavy bookings from January to March. Cruise lines use wave season as an indicator of the year ahead; the volume of bookings can affect pricing. If cruises are filling up, prices increase; if bookings are light, there's more discounting.
So far, most cruise lines seem committed to the region. "There's no serious consideration to abandoning Gulf ports," said Michael Sheehan, director of corporate communications for Royal Caribbean Cruises, which includes Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises, with a combined 29 ships. It has ships in Tampa, Galveston and seasonally in New Orleans.
Whether passengers are as committed as the cruise lines is unclear. Some travel agents in the Southeast are worried about sales, Driscoll said, but "agents in the Northeast and Midwest aren't that concerned about a comeback. They think six months later, clients won't think about it."
In most years, passengers' optimism is not unfounded. Storms have little effect on cruises; affected ships simply alter their itineraries to avoid them.
But the specter of storms may not be the only factor determining the future of cruising from the Gulf. There's the economy.
Skyrocketing fuel prices could affect cruise bookings next year, Driscoll said. Fiscally, cruise lines have weathered two bad hurricane seasons and higher fuel prices better than might be expected. Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, the three largest, are having profitable years, despite fuel costs that are 30% to 40% higher than last year. Unlike the airlines, however, cruise ships pay out just a small part of their budgets for fuel.
But rising fuel prices could affect cruise bookings nonetheless. The bite that pricier gasoline takes out of consumers' budgets could cause cutbacks in discretionary spending, Driscoll said.
Mary Lu Abbott welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters. She can be reached at email@example.com. Cruise News appears once a month.