While a handful of smaller cruise vessels have visited New Orleans for day-long ports of call since Katrina (the last one as far back as February 22), the arrival of Norwegian Sun heralds the beginning of the all-important fall-winter-spring season, during which ships actually make their turn-arounds here. That's key because cities that serve as homeports also gain overnight visitors for those who plan pre- or post-cruise vacation extensions.
Norwegian Sun, which sails seven night Western Caribbean cruises -- with ports of call such as Costa Maya, Santo Tomas de Gastilla, Guatemala and Belize City -- will be followed later this month by Carnival's Fantasy. That ship will offer four- and five-night trips. In December, New Orleans will welcome its third homeporter. Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas will sail a seven-night itinerary.
Really, the highlight of today's arrival (and subsequent departure) of Norwegian Sun is also tied to the fact that it is the first ship to dock at the brand new Erato Street Terminal. The building of the new facility, which aims to accommodate today's bigger vessels, represents a major financial commitment -- to the tune of $37 million. A key part of the terminal, which is your basic all-business facility, is a rooftop parking garage that provides spots for some 1,000 cars. Operations (as is likely on a first day of just about anything) weren't terribly smooth as some disembarking passengers described the scene as chaos -- and were still waiting, at noon, to be processed through customs.
Upstairs, on the pool deck, a ceremony was held to mark the day. The brief event included the delivery of a proclamation by New Orleans Governor Ray Nagin that pronounces the day as "Norwegian Sun Day." The certificate was, alas, delivered in absentia; the governor canceled at the last minute.
More interesting was a series of comments by Gary LaGrange, the port's CEO. He noted that New Orleans was, pre-Katrina, the nation's fastest growing homeport. In the ten years between 1994 - 2004, the port had grown a whopping 818 percent! And, as anyone who's traveled to New Orleans can imagine, the city is such a delightful starting and ending point for a voyage that cruise travelers typically spend three times as much here -- $330 per day vs. an average $92 a day in other ports. The dollar figure clearly marks New Orleans as a favorite for overnight pre- and post-cruise visits.
If today's milestone represented an event of the same import as the opening of the Aquarium, Harrah's swanky hotel and other attractions here, LeGrange was candid when he noted that after a record year in 2004, in which 753,000 folks embarked or disembarked here, 2006 will be somewhat slower. He says 350,000 - 400,000 is a more likely target this year.
Other bright spots this year include a maiden stop by Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 and Golden Princess. The latter will sail a series of three homeporting voyages -- intended as try outs for the market -- and LaGrange says that if it goes well Princess may also be lured to the Crescent City in 2008 or beyond.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor