Cruising Along

The New Orleans cruise industry is back and stronger than ever.

The first paddlewheel steamboat docked in New Orleans in 1812, and ever since, the Crescent City has been one of the world’s biggest cruise destinations.

But around this time three years ago, the future of the cruise industry was completely uncertain.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down almost the entire hospitality industry. Cruise ships across the world were docked, with no clear idea about when they’d be able to sail again. 

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But recent numbers suggest the cruise industry in New Orleans is already showing signs of getting back to pre-pandemic levels and is poised to become stronger than ever.

“In 2022, we welcomed a total of 17.53 million visitors who spent $9.1 billion,” said Kelly Schulz, senior vice president of communications and public relations at New Orleans & Company. “That’s total visitation, not specific to cruising.” In 2019, that number was 19.75 million visitors, with $10 billion of spending.

New Orleans is one of the most popular pre- and post-cruise vacations. Schulz said visitors often choose to arrive early or stay late to explore the city’s culture and attractions, contributing to an industry that generates nearly 40% of New Orleans’ operating budget. She added that the industry employs 75,000 people from every neighborhood, and without those funds, every family in Louisiana would pay thousands of dollars more per year in taxes.

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“Tourism drives our economy, boosts infrastructure, instills civic pride and provides lifelong career opportunities,” she said. “The things that make our city an attractive place to visit can also make it an attractive place to live, work and invest.”

When marketing to visitors, conferences and major events, New Orleans & Company touts the city’s infrastructure, including facilities such as the Port of New Orleans, Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Caesars Superdome, The National World War II Museum and more.

“We are known worldwide for our food, music and culture, but we also want to be known as a forward-thinking city of innovation, sustainability, creativity and business that is ‘Built to Host,’” Schulz said. “The world-class Port of New Orleans helps us tell that story.”

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In March, the port broke its monthly record with 155,225 passenger movements and 39 vessel calls. The previous record was 154,409 passenger movements and 31 vessel calls, set in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit and lockdown measures were in full swing.

For some, record-breaking numbers are a testament to the unique experience offered by the city.

“What sets us apart is when cruise passengers come to New Orleans, they get to enjoy two vacations in one,” said Port NOLA Press Secretary Kimberly Curth. “They spend money at our restaurants, our shops and our attractions. That translates to more jobs and revenue for our region and state.”

Curth added that the cruise business is a vital economic engine that contributes to the local tourism and hospitality industry — and it is back and better than ever.

“At Port NOLA, 90% of cruise guests travel from out-of-state with 73% spending one or two days in New Orleans either before or after their cruise,” she said. “That generates more than 300,000 hotel room nights in New Orleans and more than $125 million in local spending each year.”

Every time one of the large cruise ships sails into the city, Curth said, it’s like a mini convention pulling into town — and all the activity that comes with it creates jobs and injects money into the local and state economy. And the numbers don’t lie: Port NOLA is on track to set a new annual passenger record this calendar year.

There also doesn’t appear to be any sign of the cruise industry slowing down. Royal Caribbean will be returning with a new vessel, the Brilliance of the Seas, in November 2024. Port NOLA also inked a deal with Carnival Cruise Line for at least five more years of two, year-round vessels. Norwegian Cruise Line also continues for five more years, with the largest homeported vessel, the Norwegian Breakaway. Disney Cruise Line will set sail again in January, and Curth said Port NOLA continues to see growth in river cruises, with nine homeported vessels including America’s first Viking Cruise, which began sailing last year.

Cruises in New Orleans go back to when ships were powered by steam. And if the current growth is any sign, they’ll be sailing into the future for a long time to come.

Drew Hawkins is a writer and journalist in New Orleans. He’s the health equity reporter in the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among public radio stations in Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF), Alabama (WBHM) and Mississippi (MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting) and NPR. He’s also the producer and host of Micro, a LitHub podcast for short but powerful writing.


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