Is Mobile the Next Cruise Ship Destination?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Cruise shipOur cruise lawyers have witnessed many instances in which the cruise industry has done something out of the ordinary. Sometimes liners may cancel itineraries or certain ports of call based on their lack of popularity, while other times, they may scruff a port despite it being a fan favorite. The Port of Mobile in Alabama has certainly wavered in its appeal to the cruise industry over the years, but following some recent accidents at sea, many have been left to wonder if Mobile may become the next major cruise ship port.

Although the Port of Mobile has never been as popular as say, Miami or Fort Lauderdale, it has certainly been the terminal of choice for Carnival Cruise Line following two maritime accidents this year. Carnival diverted the Triumph vessel to the Port of Mobile after the ship was disabled by a fire in February – despite the fact that the port of Progreso, Mexico was a few hundred miles closer. And most recently, another Carnival ship, the Conquest, was diverted to Mobile from New Orleans when part of the Mississippi River was closed off following a tugboat accident on Sunday.

Could the actions of the cruise line be purely coincidental, or does the “Fun Ship” have something else in mind? Can the world’s largest cruise company actually be considering Mobile as a possible homeport for its vessels again after a two-year absence?

While it may not be busy with cruise ship traffic as of late, Mobile currently serves as one of the most popular ports for commercial vessels. Due to the fact that it is a deep water port – the only one in Alabama – Mobile is a favored destination for many large cargo ships and barges. It is the largest port in the U.S. for the transportation of break bulk forest products and is also a major coal export terminal.  Additionally, the port has undergone several renovations in the past 13 years, with port authorities spending nearly $500 million to expand and improve terminals to better accommodate both bulk and break bulk commodities.

Yet, aside from its commercial appeal, Mobile has never been a popular homeport for cruise ships – or popular destination for cruise travelers for that matter. With nearby Florida ports appealing to the interest of cruisers not only because of their more expansive itinerary offers, but because the ports themselves are attractive for tourists looking to explore new and interesting locations, Mobile has fallen back in the shadows and has become abandoned by the cruise industry.

The port was actually once regularly used by Carnival Cruise Line, serving as the homeport for the Elation, but the cruise line decided to reposition the ship to New Orleans in October 2011. Since then, the cruise terminal in the Port of Mobile has been basically abandoned, aside from serving as a stop for both the Triumph and Conquest ships.

Conquest guests who were diverted to the port actually reported a pleasant experience, but since the city has spent most of its resources accommodating to commercial vessels instead of trying to increase the port’s appeal for cruise lines, Mobile has basically fallen off the map for the cruise industry.

The $25 million cruise terminal may very well emerge as the next big cruise port in the U.S., but port authorities are going to have to step up their efforts if they want not just Carnival back, but to recruit other, newer ships as well.

The multibillion-dollar cruise industry is not going to waste its time – or money – homeporting ships in the Port of Mobile unless it can make some sort of profit. The fact that it was able to accommodate the 953-foot Conquest is impressive, since many of the newer ships that are being built are well over 1,000-feet long. But demonstrating that it can accommodate large ships is only a start. Officials are also going to have to work on tactics to capture the interest of tourists, including devising exciting shore excursion ideas and setting up shops near the port where travelers can purchase souvenirs.

Cruise travelers want an exciting and memorable experience, and that is exactly what port authorities need to focus on if they want to stand a chance against the nation’s most popular terminals.

According to city Mayor Sam Jones, officials have been working diligently to recruit cruise ships to Mobile and so far, two lines have allegedly expressed interest. Jones and other city policymakers recently met with cruise officials in Miami to further discuss the matter and the mayor seems confident in his ability to bring at least one ship to the port.

But aside from increasing its fun appeal, Mobile authorities should also be working on improving port safety in order to prevent accidents at the terminal. We cannot count the number of times in which our cruise lawyers have represented both passengers and crew members who have been injured because of a lack of safety at a port before even stepping onto the vessel.  And given the increasing rate of cruise accidents, it’s important for Mobile to market its port as a safe location for vacationers in order to appeal to the now very wary nation of cruise travelers following the series of accidents and mechanical malfunctions that have befallen the industry in the past two years.