Monday, November 14, 2011

Galveston Hopes for Tourism Magic

Carnival Magic
Houston Chronicle: Galveston loves magic — especially the kind that promises to float millions of tourism dollars into the local economy.
The 3,690-passenger Carnival Magic made its debut over the weekend and embarks Monday on an inaugural trip from Galveston, marking the third new cruise ship in the southern port this year. Island officials hope the ship will bring the island more tourism dollars, as Galveston marked a milestone in its decade-long efforts to market the port city as a cruising destination.

"It shows the major cruise lines understand the appeal of Galveston and are choosing to invest in it over other popular markets," said Leah Cast, a spokeswoman for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The 130,000-ton ship boasts a WaterWorks aqua park with a 312-foot-long spiral water slide, a ropes course, as well as numerous other amenities.

Rates for a seven-night Western Caribbean cruise itinerary, departing from Galveston, range from $529 to more than $1,000 per person, depending on travel dates, for a standard inside stateroom based on double occupancy, according to Carnival's website.

Sue Schmitt, a Houston travel agent, says the cruise line is usually more economical and has already booked about 20 cabins for clients.

"Most of them are excited because it's brand new," she said. "For many of them, the ship is the destination."

Steady bookings
While the prolonged economic downturn has put a squeeze on tourism, Schmitt says her business has been surprisingly steady this year.

The addition of Carnival Magic adds to Galveston's cruising cachet, she said.

"Obviously Carnival feels that way or they wouldn't put a brand new ship here," she said, adding that she and her husband are booked to sail on the inaugural trip Monday. "I have clients going on it in two weeks, and they are so anxious for me to get back and report."

John Heald, Carnival's senior cruise director, said bringing the new ship to the Lone Star State was an easy decision.

"Florida was upset, but Galveston is a great revenue market for us," he said.

His only concern so far was the lack of a drugstore close to the terminal so the crew wouldn't have to travel far to buy toiletries.

The Magic arrived about one month after 2,758-passenger Carnival Triumph began voyages from the island. Together, the ships have the potential to bring about 100,000 more visitors to Galveston and at least $10 million in direct economic impact to the island's tourism industry, according to the visitors bureau.

The potential tourism dollars had island officials wining and dining national media, travel agents and other industry players throughout the weekend, many of whom toured the ship and the island Sunday and spent the night aboard.

Selling Galveston
The visitors bureau handed out free passes to local attractions and gave a presentation about the island to Carnival's sales representatives over the weekend as part of an effort to have the cruise line pitch the city as a destination.

Sunday afternoon, pop band Maroon 5 performed for the crowd.

The port recently completed $12.5 million in renovations of the terminal designed specifically to accommodate more passengers and the larger Carnival Magic vessel.

Carnival's parent company helped finance improvements in 2004, a partnership that helped the port grow and raise the money it needed for the recent renovations, which included a new gangway and expanded passenger waiting areas, said Galveston port director Steve Cernak.

"We couldn't have done it without them," he said.

Other ships sharing the port with Carnival Magic include the Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas, which started sailing out of Galveston last week, replacing similarly sized Voyager of the Seas. The 2,400-passenger Disney Magic is expected to start sailing from the port next September, followed by the 3,080-passenger Crown Princess in December 2012.

Troubled Bayport
Meanwhile, the Port of Houston Authority's $71 million Bayport Cruise Terminal remains without a ship regularly calling on the facility that was built in 2009.

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