Houston Port Completely Missed the Boat

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The Port of Houston is yet again losing its cruise business. After a $104 million refurb in 2013 and $6.7 million in incentives offered to Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises, the port will watch these two major cruise ships sail away for good this April. But is anyone really surprised?

The Port of Houston is frequently plagued by fog, making it hard for the cruise ships to navigate the channels and presenting a safety issue. And even though the beautiful, recently redone terminal outshines that of Galveston’s in organization and cleanliness, it could only hold one ship at a time. Add these to a long list of other factors like the inability to shop, play blackjack, or drink some anything but domestics until the lengthy ride out into international waters, and it’s a wonder they decided to put so much money into it in the first place.

The chief complaint about Galveston among out-of-towners is the port’s distance from either of Houston’s two major airports. The cruise terminal is 42 miles from Houston’s Hobby Airport and 71 miles from the George Bush Intercontinental Airport. That’s a 50-minute drive or an hour and 15-minute drive, respectively, and that’s assuming you don’t encounter traffic (but it’s Houston, so you probably will). However, it’s not like the Port of Houston was just a few blocks away from either airport either.

Granted the Port of Houston Authority and the Port of Galveston are two different entities, so it’s not like the Port of Houston could just say “here’s $104 million to make some upgrades, Galveston.” But it seems like all that money would’ve been better served elsewhere, especially if it were in Galveston. Instead of Houston upgrading its port, which had already been abandoned by the cruise lines once before, it would’ve been better for cruisers if Galveston had considered a similar move.

According to the Houston Chronicle, cruising brought in ~$1.3 billion in revenue for Texas in 2014, with over 750,000 passengers departing on cruises that year. Clearly the demand is there. Meanwhile, Carnival dominates the market, with three of some of its best ships sailing out of Galveston year-round next to Royal Caribbean’s one ship, the Liberty of the Seas. If Galveston were to build a third or even a fourth terminal, would Norwegian and Princess rejoin the Texas market? Would Disney stay longer than its last two-month stint? If Galveston built one big enough, would Royal Caribbean place a Oasis- or Quantum-class ship there? The more cruise traffic, the more hotel and tourism revenue to be made, and Galveston Island certainly offers much more for tourists to do and see than the industrial Port of Houston.

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