(6 p.m. EDT) -- Last Thursday, Carnival Cruise Lines announced that, as of October 22, it would no longer cruise from its homeport in Mobile, Alabama, where it had operated ships since 2004. What it didn't mention was that the one-ship port was not warned that it was not meeting Carnival's financial needs, nor was it given much advance notice of the pullout. As the port faces an uncertain future and employee layoffs with no scheduled ship visits after the end of October, we decided to take a closer look at just what happened.
"Out of the clear blue, I was called Thursday morning at home by Carnival, saying it was pulling the ship as of October 22," Al St. Clair, the director of the Mobile cruise terminal, told Cruise Critic. "It came as a real shock."
When we asked Carnival why the announcement came without warning, spokesman Vance Gulliksen responded, "The Port of Mobile was advised the morning of March 10 and the press release went out later that afternoon. We had originally intended to provide the port with more advance notice, but found ourselves unexpectedly scrambling because the news had leaked out in Port Canaveral and both media and guests were getting wind of it." The reasons given for pulling out of Mobile were the inability "to generate favorable financial results ... and high fuel costs required for the itineraries."
However, Carnival declined to comment on why the line had not given Mobile a heads-up that something was wrong, allowing the port to try to improve before Carnival pulled the plug. In fact, St. Clair says that Carnival never once had a discussion with the port about cruise prices out of Mobile being problematic. He routinely compares the fares on Mobile's four- and five-night cruises to those of similar short cruises out of New Orleans and Galveston and has always found them to be in the same price range. The terminal was highly rated by passengers, and Carnival Elation, which carries 2,056 passengers at double occupancy, typically sails full -- with more than 2,450 passengers utilizing third and fourth berths in many cabins.
"As port director, I have negotiating power," St Clair says. He could have worked with Carnival to increase advertising to potential cruisers or offer financial incentives to stay. Now, he is scrambling to leverage his modern terminal, large drive-to market, competitive rates and advertising incentives to other mainstream lines.
Cruise Critic readers have also questioned Carnival's move. Pollyanna22 posts on the message boards, "Local travel agents have reported they had heard no complaints from Carnival that they were losing money. City officials had heard no complaints from Carnival, either ... In my opinion, Carnival should've been sharing this info with city officials before all this went down. Instead, our city was blind-sided and given the shaft." Jabee conjectures, "It really makes me wonder if something else was in the works, and suddenly a plan had to be developed, and eliminating Mobile was the easy answer. Last June Mobile averaged 2,617 passengers on a [2,056] passenger ship. Even at lower rates, those extra 500 passengers added profit, especially in the summer." (Editor's Note: St. Clair confirmed Jabee's numbers.)
Others wonder if Mobile's low profile as a tourist destination hurt the city. CorncobOBiscuit posts, "I will say that when planning our upcoming cruise, several trips out of Mobile were in the list presented to us by the travel agent, and we tended to pass over those in favor of the ports we recognized as more of a vacation destination like New Orleans and Miami. I did a little further research and found that Mobile does have more going for it than I expected, but I wonder how many cruisers turn it down right off the bat because it doesn't 'sound' like a place to take a vacation." St. Clair acknowledges Mobile's attractions -- such as a family-oriented Mardi Gras celebration that's older than New Orleans' -- are not well-known outside the state and that airfares into Mobile are typically higher than those to other southern cities, as it's not an airline hub.
Yet, member LHP sides with the cruise line. "Carnival gave it 6 years. Carnival passengers paid for the terminal, gangway and improvements. Mobile got 6 years of promotion and advertising ... but could not deliver."
Ultimately, whether you agree with Carnival's decision or not, the fact remains that Mobile is looking at about 125 lost jobs, according to St. Clair. He adds that an economist at the University of Southern Alabama estimates the city's losses at $22 million. And, cruise travelers who prefer to drive to their homeport now have one fewer option on the Gulf Coast ... unless another cruise line steps in.
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--by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor