Tuesday, October 29, 2013
By Carole Hawkins, Contributing Writer
Jacksonville's cruise ship industry at first glance might not seem impressive — a single ship populates its entire fleet. Still, cruise has maintained a foothold in the Jacksonville for 10 years, with no sign of drifting off into the sunset.
"We have consistently seen Jacksonville deliver for us," said Kirsten Sanchez, business development manager for Carnival Cruise lines, which operates Fascination out of the harbor. "This has been a fantastic port for us."
On Monday, as he celebrated the cruise industry's 10-year anniversary, Jacksonville Port Authority CEO Brian Taylor said he is pursuing ways to make the industry more vibrant.
"This could really be a growth industry for us if we can attract a number of players," he said. That means more ships. But would other cruise lines come here?
Jacksonville has been a good pick for Carnival because of its access to middle-America, Sanchez said.
"Jacksonville has been a key part of that success," she said. "We attract a slightly different demographic here than we do in South Florida. It's more of a drive-in market, people who drive to the port rather than fly in."
The port draws seniors and families from North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and west to the Mississippi River, said Linda Moore, district manager of Intercruises, which runs emabarkation services in Jacksonville for Carnival.
"Jacksonville is a great location. People don't have to drive another eight hours to get to South Florida," she said. "This ship hold 2,600 people and we're always full."
Jacksonville's cruise industry is small, but in some ways more important than the cruise business in larger markets, said Paul Astleford, CEO of Visit Jacksonville.
"Jacksonville's image as a destination has not been fully established nationally and internationally," he said. "Cruise is an important part of increasing our visibility."
The success of the cruise trickles to other businesses.
A Holiday Inn Express a mile and a half up the road from the terminal gets most of its customers just before and just after ships come to port, said Julianna Randolph, who manages the hotel's front desk.
At Jacksonville International Airport, cruise days create a visible and noticeable increase in traffic, said Debbie Jones, community relations manager for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.
"I even let the airport's musicians know which days are cruise days, because those days are busier," she said.
JaxPort will soon release its growth strategy for the next 20 years, and Taylor has already stressed diversity as a key part of that strategy.
That means growing cruise.
But in Jacksonville, the industry faces challenges.
The port's cruise terminal lies on the inland side of the Dames Point Bridge. The bridge's height limits the size of cruise ships that can home port in Jacksonville. JaxPort is pursuing two strategies to get past the barrier, Taylor said.
First, market to several cruise operators that have ships small enough to use the current terminal.
And second, pursue long-term commitments from those operators, so the authority can invest in a new terminal at a different location.
"Cruise ships are headed the same direction as other vessels, they are getting bigger," Taylor said. "So we have some work to do. But, we do feel cruise can be a positive contributor to the future here at JaxPort."