Progress Report: Is Galveston Ready for an Influx of Cruise Ships?

December 19, 2011

(11 a.m. EST) -- Spend a couple of days in Galveston, Texas, the latest homeport darling of the cruise ship industry, and you may start humming the theme song to "Rocky." Like the fictional boxer, this Gulf Coast city of 48,000 that sits smack dab in the crosshairs of hurricane alley gets knocked down but keeps staggering to its feet.

Galveston's infamous claim to fame is being the site of the United States' deadliest natural disaster. On September 8, 1900, more than 6,000 perished in a hurricane known as "The Great Storm." (This was before the days of "official" storm naming.) More recently, Galveston was severely damaged in 2008 by Hurricane Ike: The city's 17-foot-tall seawall along the Gulf of Mexico held, but a storm surge as high as 20 feet inundated parts of the island's east end.

For seven weeks after Ike struck, no cruise ship could dock in Galveston, and passenger numbers dipped to 748,523, their lowest level since 2004. The two Carnival ships homeporting in Galveston when the hurricane hit -- Carnival Conquest and Carnival Ecstasy -- eventually returned. But others that had spent part of the year sailing from the city were permanently redeployed. While steady increases in passenger numbers have occurred every year since Ike, the hurricane hit Galveston's cruise industry hard, and 2006's high point of 1.2 million cruise passengers remains supreme. But that may soon change.

The Galveston faithful got their biggest shot in the arm to date when Carnival announced that their city had been chosen as Carnival Magic's homeport. The Carnival flagship, which holds 3,690 passengers, started its seven-night cruises to the Caribbean and the Bahamas on November 14, and city leaders are betting that passengers will extend their vacations with a stay on the island.

In addition to Magic, the 2,758-passenger Carnival Triumph also homeports in Galveston. Those two ships replaced the smaller Ecstasy and Conquest, and tourism officials estimate that the two larger ships could bring 100,000 visitors in 2012, creating as much as $10 million in yearly revenue. On November 11, Royal Caribbean's 3,114-passenger Mariner of the Seas began its winter stint in Galveston, offering Western Caribbean cruises through mid-April 2012; it replaces classmate Voyager of the Seas.

And more ships are coming. In late 2012, two large cruise ships -- Disney Magic, with a capacity of 1,754, and Princess Cruises' 3,080-passenger Crown Princess -- will spend part of the year sailing out of Galveston. Those ships could add another $9 million annually to the city's coffers and bring a total of more than 1.1 million cruise passengers to Galveston by the end of next year.

"Quality cruise lines attract tourists, who spend millions of dollars at our hotels, attractions, restaurants and shops," said Leah Cast, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Cruise officials are moving ships to Galveston to tap into the Texas and Midwest market. About 30 million people live within a 300-mile radius of the city, which is about 45 minutes south of Houston. And as more ships are built cruise lines need to find new homeports.

But is this 32-mile-long island sufficiently recovered from the effects of Ike to host so many visitors? And are there enough good restaurants, decent hotels and fun attractions on an island that is no more than 2.5 miles across at its widest point?

While derelict abandoned houses and vacant fields are still a part of the Galveston landscape, much work has been done in rebuilding and restoring since Hurricane Ike, which damaged 75 percent of the city's homes and caused more than $3.2 billion in damage.


Some of the island's top tourism destinations -- including Schlitterbahn Waterpark and the Aquarium and Rainforest Pyramid at Moody Gardens -- were seriously damaged by the hurricane. The seven-story Flagship Hotel, built on a pier that jutted 1,000 feet into the Gulf of Mexico, was battered beyond repair. And more than 40,000 trees, including hundreds of mature oaks that canopied the city streets, were destroyed by the saltwater surge. But, as apparent during a recent visit by Cruise Critic, Ike's lemons have been fashioned into some very appealing lemonade.

Damage at Moody Gardens, for example, sparked a $25 million renovation of its Rainforest Pyramid facility: Guests can now view the rainforest via an elevated walkway that offers a treetop perspective. The Flagship Hotel was torn down, and the new Pleasure Pier amusement park, scheduled to open in May 2012, is under construction. Schlitterbahn Waterpark reopened in spring 2009 with a new huge thatched-roof structure to replace the damaged tent, and it has since added the Shipwreck Harbor Wave Lagoon.

As for the trees, many of the largest oaks that died have been carved into works of art, featuring local birds, dogs and even the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz." Tours of the tree sculptures have become a tourist favorite.

"This is a great market for us," Carnival president and CEO Gerry Cahill said at the opening reception aboard the Magic attended by city officials, Carnival executives, travel agents and media. "The people of Galveston have been very good to work with."

The feeling is apparently mutual. "We are coming off the best summer tourism season on record for Galveston," said Cast, "and we believe the exposure and added value we'll receive from the Carnival Magic being here is only going to help keep that momentum going."

--by Carol Sottili, Cruise Critic Contributor