The return of cruises is contributing to Galveston’s economic recovery

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GALVESTON – The Carnival Vista, a 1,100 foot cruise ship Carrying hundreds of passengers, will slip from Galveston Harbor on a course to Mahogany Bay, Honduras on Saturday, signaling a rebirth of a local industry and symbolizing how far the state and nation has come since the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic.

The return of cruise ships to Galveston Port was celebrated by passengers, Carnival Cruise Lines executives and Galveston officials as another part of the island’s tourism economy emerged after a year of business closings, financial losses and layoffs. Before the pandemic, cruise lines brought about 1 million visitors through Galveston who stayed in hotels, dined in restaurants, and paid for long-term parking.

“It means everything to us that you come back,” said Charles Tompkins, chief operating officer of Port Parking and EZ Cruise Parking, which own and operate a dozen parcels on the island.

Few industries have been hit as hard by the pandemic as cruise ships, which became floating stations for infectious diseases and emblems of the rapid spread of the coronavirus just over a year ago. One ship, the Diamond Princess, operated by Princess Cruises, notoriously spent weeks at sea with its passengers in quarantine. Quite a few wondered who would ever cruise again.

A lot turns out. With the advent of vaccinations, people are returning to cruise ships. The proportion of Americans worried about getting on cruise lines fell to a pandemic low of 46 percent in June, and has declined, according to a poll conducted by Destination Analysts, a travel and tourism market research firm based in San Francisco.

About 2,700 people – about 70 percent of capacity – will board the Carnival Vista on Saturday. Royal Caribbean will sail again from Galveston in August and Disney cruises in November. In total, according to the port of Galveston, 135 cruises are expected this year and 238 next year.

The cruise lines require their passengers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 Carnival said passengers must provide proof of vaccination based on requirements from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The July cruises will operate with at least 95 percent of fully vaccinated guests, with the exception of children under 12 and some adults who have requested exemptions.

However, in early June, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill This prohibits Texan companies from requiring customers to provide proof of their COVID-19 vaccine status. Carnival said its vaccination guidelines are in line with Texas law, which provides exemptions for companies that impose COVID-19 protocols in line with federal laws and recommendations.

One of the passengers on Carnival Vista will be Gina Breland, who describes herself as a dedicated cruiser who has been impatiently waiting for departures from Galveston to resume. Breland, 51, of Houston, said she was reluctant to get the vaccine until Carnival requested proof of vaccination to board the ship

“I wanted (the vaccine) to be out a little longer,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of COVID. I was afraid of not being able to cross. “

Onshore spending

Breland has taken about 10 cruises with her sister. She was on the last Carnival Vista cruise in March 2020 and still remembers with some confusion returning ashore to find it was almost impossible to buy toilet paper. She had booked cruises for July, August and September last year – all canceled.

Breland and her sister were due to be driving from their home in northwest Houston on Friday. They planned to spend the night in a hotel, shop and eat in Galveston’s historic Strand district and even get their nails done before boarding the ship, where they await seven days of royal treatment.

“I’m a grandmother and a mother,” said Breland, who has three grown children and five grandchildren. “But when I’m out there, I’m the one who gets spoiled.”

According to the Cruise Lines International Association, an industrial trade group, the Galveston cruise industry generated $ 125 million in land passenger spending in 2019. According to the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, about 16 percent of passengers, or about 160,000, stay overnight before the cruise.

Tremont House, just three blocks from the cruise ship dock, typically earns about 40 percent of its revenue from cruise ship passengers. Jeff Ossenkop, general manager of the hotel.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the hotel had to close for a few months and then only ran with a remaining staff – around 20 to 30 percent – when it reopened due to low occupancy. The occupancy rate has since recovered to around 70 percent.

Over the past 45 days, Ossenkop said he has noticed more requests – around 10 to 12 a day – from people asking about the hotel’s cruise package, which includes shuttle service to the piers and long-term parking. The number of overnight stays with one overnight stay is also increasing.

“The interest is definitely there, but some are still waiting to see what happens after the first cruises,” said Ossenkop. “Summer is going to be a hit or miss, but I think autumn (the hotel) will have limited availability.”

For Tompkins and his wife, Cindy, who started the parking business, the return of cruises couldn’t come soon enough. With COVID-19 not only canceling cruises but also impacting travel and tourism in general, their parking garages “went from 100 percent to zero,” said Charles Tompkins.

The couple sold two of their homes, moved into their beach house, and put their personal money into the company to keep it afloat. Business is slowly recovering. The lots are nearing 50 percent occupancy and the return of the cruise lines gives them new hope.

“It will recover,” said Charles Tompkins, “but it will take a while because people are skeptical right now.”

Fogged up

Rodger Rees, Director and CEO of Galveston Port, also hopes the cruise industry will be back in full swing soon. Cruise ships make up 65 percent of the port’s revenue, which has shrunk by about $ 44 million during the pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, Royal Caribbean pledged to build a $ 110 million cruise terminal that was put on hold for about 14 months. It is scheduled to be completed by November 2022 and will create 1,300 jobs, mostly in construction, while generating an estimated $ 60 million in personal income and up to $ 10 million per year in revenue for the port.

“We are ready to begin these cruises because they have halted much of our progress,” Rees said. “We rely heavily on the cruise business.”

Cruise activity provides a boost to most shops and restaurants, but due to the short length of time passengers spend in the city, it is only a small part of their business.

“We’re seeing a little boom in business, but that’s not what people think,” said Joe Flores, owner of Yaga Clothing Co. “When people stay, they’re usually only here for a day.”

When cruise ships are about to leave, James Moreno, co-owner of Brew Brothers, looks for thick fog to keep the ships in port. Then the cruisers take a seat at the bar.

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