A news conference organized by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson this afternoon has the city abuzz about the return of a cruise ship to Mobile. Early this morning, Stimpson posted a photo to his social media accounts a portrait in front of Carnival headquarters in Miami, where aides say he traveled for an “economic development opportunity.”
At 1 p.m., Stimpson announced the city was indeed under “final contract negotiations” with Carnival Cruise Lines, and he expected to deliver a draft agreement to the City Council for approval within a month.
Details were scant, but Bob Bender, president of Springdale Travel, speculates that Stimpson landed a “short-term contract” for the Carnival Fantasy, a 25-year-old ship currently based out of Charleston, South Carolina with a capacity for 2,675 passengers.
A regular cruise from the Mobile’s $26 million Alabama Cruise Terminal has not embarked since October 2011, and the facility has subsequently been used as a banquet hall and meeting space. Bender said the industry has been unhappy with Fantasy’s performance in Charleston, and during a search this morning, he could find no record of bookings beyond 2016.“What we’re hearing is it’s going to be the Fantasy in 2016 and it will be short-term contract, meaning 16-18 months,” he said. “We love that idea because we think there will be a lot of short-term demand, but as is common, after a ship is in a port over a long period of time it gets tougher to keep the barges full but we’re excited.”
Speaking prior to the mayor’s press conference, Stewart Chiron, an industry expert known as “The Cruise Guy,” said it was widely reported last year Carnival would swap out the ship in Charleston with another in Miami, and the change did not involve Mobile at all. Instead, he suggested Stimpson is simply announcing positive discussions with the company in the least and a “test cruise” at most — essentially, an opportunity for Carnival to return to the city and measure the market in an economic environment that is considerably different than it was in 2011.
After the mayor’s press conference, Chiron said he’d received updated information suggesting it would be a year-to-year deal, but he did agree Mobile would host a “fantasy class” ship, the oldest in its fleet.
Speculating about possible destinations, Bender asked a hypothetical question regarding market changes since Carnival last sailed from Alabama: “What’s changed? Why now?” he asked. “Sit here and look. The only dynamic I see changed along the Gulf Coast is Cuba, so let’s hope that’s the destination. But at the same time, why Mobile and why not Miami?”
But Chiron seemed amused by Bender’s suggestion, and said the real answer lies in the improved national economy, the fact that Carnival has 24 ships now plus a new one taking its maiden voyage next year, and fuel prices that have plunged since 2013.
“Why are they entertaining it? We’re in a different economic situation, there are millions of potential customers within a four-hour drive of Mobile and Carnival is open to retesting waters to see if there is any gold in those hills,” Chiron said.
Regarding a potential destination in Havana, he quipped, “I’m surprised you didn’t bring up China.”
“Most of those ships will leave from Florida,” he said. “Mobile is geographically challenged. It’s the most northern port on the Gulf, it costs more in fuel and expenses to get anywhere, and it’s very limited in destinations ships can reach in a four-to-seven day cruise.”
While Bender noted previous agreements between the city and Carnival were non-binding, Chiron said a even a short-term contract without further market analysis would be unlikely. While Chiron was skeptical, he suggested any development is admirable. He also predicted any contract would likely carry certain concessions by the city, including, at a minimum, the waiver of port fees and financial contributions to marketing efforts.
Stimpson said little about the terms of the contract, but suggested his goal was to get “three million more visitors” in Mobile by 2020, effectively doubling the city’s annual tourism numbers. He said the city’s previous courtships with Carnival were admirable, but today, the city has more to offer.
“It’s great they are even having a conversation,” he said. “If a ship does returns it brings a lot of economic opportunities and benefits, and I hope it’s successful, but we’re in a different world than we were four years ago and no one can predict the future.”
Coincidentally, Mobile’s long-awaited and expensive GulfQuest National Maritime Museum is scheduled to open Sept. 26, but spokeswoman Diana Brewer, along with other port authorities and economic development officials, said they have not been privy to the mayor’s discussions or news.
This article, originally entitled “Insiders at odds over looming cruise ship announcement,” was updated to reflect statements from the mayor’s press conference, and update Chiron’s opinion after the press conference.
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