NEW ORLEANS - Some larger cruise ships will call New Orleans their home as the role of the cruise business continues to increase at the Port of New Orleans.
The Carnival Sunshine, which arrives Sunday, carries 2,984 passengers - 22 more than the Carnival Conquest, which it's replacing. In April, it will be replaced in turn by the 3,646-passenger Carnival Dream, which Carnival Cruise Lines currently plans to keep in New Orleans.
The port is likely to set its third straight record for cruise ship passengers this year, said Gary LaGrange, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans. He said the Dream should increase that even more in 2014, when it's expected to boost Carnival's passenger total from more than 330,000 a year to more than 400,000 a year.
New Orleans' overall cruise business rose more than 32 percent last year to 977,703 passengers. The 2011 passenger total of 736,908 broke a record set in 2004, port officials have said, citing a report made for the Cruise Lines International Association.
"This year we have a good shot at passing a million," LaGrange said.
The CLIA report also said New Orleans was the nation's sixth-busiest cruise port last year, up from ninth in 2011.
LaGrange said cruises have risen from about 5 percent of the port's income a dozen years ago to 20 percent of last year's $50 million-plus revenues.
Carnival cruises year-round from the port. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line sails from October through April, and Norwegian Cruise Line from November through April.
Those lines also are bringing in new ships. The 2,376-passenger Norwegian Jewel replaced the 2,348-passenger Norwegian Star, and Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas is replacing the newly renovated Serenade of the Seas.
New Orleans' cruise business has risen nearly nine-fold over the past 10 to 12 years, LaGrange said. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that we're marketing it as two vacations in one: Come down and you get the Big Easy and get the cruise as well," he said.
He said the CLIA study found that passengers usually also spend two nights in area hotels, spending $335 a day in New Orleans compared to an industry average of $93 a day.
Newer, faster ships make the Gulf of Mexico's destinations more accessible, offering more cruise stops than many other ports, LaGrange said. From New Orleans cruises go to Mexico, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Florida, Belize, Honduras, San Francisco, the Canary Islands and Spain.
Jim Berra, senior vice president of marketing and chief marketing officer for Carnival, said the Carnival Sunshine, previously known as the Destiny, underwent a $155 million makeover at a shipyard in Trieste, Italy, adding a water park, a new partial deck, 182 cabins, and more than 20 new "branded spaces" such as restaurants, outer decks, bars and lounges and entertainment.
The Sunshine and Dream will continue the Conquest's weeklong cruises. The Elation will continue as the line's ship for 4- and 5-day trips.