Mobile and Carnival Cruise Lines will celebrate a three-year extension of its partnership on Monday, one day before the 15-year anniversary of the grand opening for Alabama’s only cruise terminal.
The celebration is set begin around noon aboard the 2,056-passenger Carnival Fantasy, which was lured into Mobile in 2016 following the city’s five-year hiatus from cruising at the Mobile, Alabama Cruise Terminal.
“The city of Mobile and Carnival have a good partnership, and I expect it to continue,” aid Mobile City Councilwoman Gina Gregory.
Said Council Vice-President Levon Manzie, “This agreement shows that (Carnival) has a continued confidence in us as a viable cruise port, and as a city with hospital amenities to appease the people who come onto the ship. I would predict bigger and better things to come.”
A proposed addendum to agreement – first signed by the city in 2015 – has not been authorized yet by the City Council. As proposed, the agreement extends Carnival’s relationship in Mobile to provide cruises out of the city’s downtown terminal from Nov. 30, 2019 to Nov. 30, 2021.
The proposal includes an opt-out clause after the first year and says Carnival can terminate the agreement at any time after Nov. 30, 2020 – without incurring any liability — so long as it provides a 120-day prior written notice to the city.
It is the first multi-year pact Carnival has entertained with Mobile since the Miami-based company decided to return to cruising from the Port City four years ago. Since the inaugural Carnival Fantasy cruise occurred on Nov. 9, 2016, the city and the company have approved one-year agreements only.
“I think we’ve been fortunate to have them as long as we have had,” said Councilman John Williams. “It’s certainly an enhancement of a quality of life to Mobilians, and it’s a boost to our economy and any continued relationship with Carnival is a good thing.”
The three-year addition to the agreement was supposed to be approved by the council during a special meeting on Thursday. But that meeting was canceled after three council members – Fred Richardson, Bess Rich and C.J. Small – did not attend. The agreement, along with a vote on the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget, were the only two items on the council’s agenda.
The city’s lack of a budget for the fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, stems from ongoing legal squabbling between Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration and the council. The budget and the Carnival agreement are unrelated.
George Talbot, spokesman for the mayor, said he hopes the council can get the agreement approved soon.
“The administration has worked hard for the past several months to negotiate a new agreement with Carnival Cruise Lines,” Talbot said in an email to AL.com. “Those negotiations were successful and so we have submitted a contract for approval by the City Council. We are hopeful that the contract with be approved without further delays so we can continue this great partnership and keep Carnival cruising from Mobile for years to come.”
Rich, in her weekly newsletter update, said no contract had been provided to her ahead of the special-called meeting, and Richardson also said he had not seen a contract.
He said he believes that a representative with Carnival should sign the contract first before the council approves it.
But Manzie said he anticipates the council approving the addendum without any concerns during Tuesday’s regular-scheduled meeting.
“You got eight elected leaders in Mobile who appreciate the continued relationship with Carnival Cruise Lines,” said Manzie, referring to the seven council members and Stimpson.
The agreement would establish a legal document that would allow Mobile to continue receiving more revenue that will assist in paying off more than $1.8 million in annual debt for the cruise terminal. The bond on the terminal – which opened officially on Oct. 15, 2004 – isn’t expected to be paid off until 2030.
Cruising into Mobile does produce a financial boon for Mobile. According to the city, approximately $6.1 million was generated in gross revenues during the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30. The money was generated from wharfage and parking fees.
Dave Clark, president/CEO of Visit Mobile, said the cruise ship is responsible for generating approximately 25,000 hotel room nights. At an average rate of around $110 a night, the revenue generated from hotel stays is around $2.5 million, he said.
“That’s not counting meals and recreation and meals and those kinds of things,” Clark said. “You’re looking at a huge economic impact with no fancy multipliers. It’s a big number.”
The council’s vote on the Carnival contract will take place one day after a media event occurs aboard the Carnival Fantasy, which is part of the Miami-based company’s fleet of vessels branded as “Fun Ship 2.0” featuring top chefs, swimming pools, casino gambling, and spas.
The Fantasy, however, is the oldest cruise ship in Carnival’s fleet entering service for the first time in 1990. And among Mobile area cruisers who have embraced the vessel since 2016, there are questions on whether the company will change things up by either adding a second cruise ship in Mobile or replacing the Fantasy with something else.
The itineraries remain similar to what they were in 2016: Five-day excursions from Mobile are to Progeso and Cozumel, with four-day trips to Cozumel.
“Hopefully, Carnival will try some other itineraries,” said Steve Cape, a longtime travel agent in Mobile.
He said Carnival has experimented with other excursions before with voyages including trips to Costa Rica and Honduras. The ship was damaged last month while sailing through the Panama Canal as part of a 10-day cruise to Central America.
“The people who are repeating (trips) out of Mobile are repeating out of convenience or because their friends are going on it and they want to go on it,” said Cape. “Because of the convenience of the ship sailing out of Mobile, and for the price, they might go on that extra vacation on the ship out of Mobile.”
Cape said people can get a good deal sailing on the cruise ship – less than $100 per person per day for accommodations, food and entertainment – or around $800 per couple. That doesn’t include drink packages or gambling, he said, but still offers a “better value” than a beach vacation to a city such as Gulf Shores.
He, along with city officials, believe Mobile should also push to see if it can lure a second ship to the cruise terminal.
Mobile city officials have talked about bringing two cruise ships for years dating back to 2006, when former Mayor Sam Jones saying that voyages should be offered to the Caribbean and to Mexico.
Said Cape, “I still think that for Mobile, having a second ship is an important step and that competition is just a very important part of the game here. Until then, Carnival can pull out and no lose any market share and that’s not a good position to be in.”
Stewart Chiron, CEO of cruiseguy.com and a long-time industry analyst and insider, said he doesn’t anticipate anything changing for Mobile outside the existing three-year agreement.
“It’s uncommon for a Port like Mobile to get a multi-year deal,” said Chiron. “So the fact that they are willing to commit to the potential three-year deal is great. It’s certainly a good move for Mobile. But they won’t be bringing in something larger. They are not changing up the ships.”
Cape said it will be important for Mobile to continue pushing to brand itself as a vacation destination similar to other port cities in the Southeast like Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., among others.
“Mobile has to establish itself as a vacation destination city in order to attract more of the cruise business,” said Cape. “It’s going to be overcome by other port cities that are considered vacation destinations in the future. Mobile has a good head start. The way we handle things will definitely affect our future.”
Clark, with Visit Mobile, said the city has been aggressive in meeting with representatives from the cruise industry about promoting Mobile’s terminal through direct and digital marketing.
A study is currently underway that will analyze the demographics of the cruisers from Mobile that will help the city “develop a story” about what cruising looks like compared to the last study that occurred in 2011.
Clark also said there are ongoing discussions to provide additional tourist attractions along the city’s waterfront, such as riverboat cruises.
“We have the infrastructure,” he said. “We are all working hard on this every day to make sure we are being innovative and keeping up with things and thinking ahead with what the future is and can be.”