Growth ahead for the Port of Galveston

The Port of Galveston is in expansion mode to accommodate the world’s largest cruise ships. Michele Witthaus talks with Rodger Rees about the port’s plans

Growth ahead for the Port of Galveston
The Port of Galveston is set to open a third cruise terminal in 2022

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

In 2018, the Port of Galveston welcomed its 10 millionth passenger since the start of its cruise business almost 20 years ago. It also clocked up nearly two million passenger movements, setting a new record for its highest-ever passenger volumes.

In addition to these successes, the port also saw an unprecedented number of cruise ship calls (268), representing a 5.1% increase on the previous record of 255 calls in 2017. This year, the port has continued these upward trends with cruise calls expected to hit 299 with a 9.1% year-on-year increase in passenger embarkations.

Last December, the board of trustees of the Galveston Wharves announced that it had entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. for the development and operation of a new cruise terminal, set to open in 2022. The terms of the long-term lease negotiations specify a 20-year initial term and four 10-year options after that.

Another major development at the port is the decision to partner with Bermello Ajamil & Partners (BA) to develop a Strategic Master Plan. BA will design the new cruise terminal as part of this plan, which covers cruise facilities, cargo and compatible commercial development. The cruise terminal is estimated to open in 2022.

Port director Rodger Rees says that all aspects of these new developments are progressing well. “From a cruise infrastructure standpoint, everything is in good shape,” he notes. “We’re going through the exchange of documents for the MOU, which will include US$4 million to US$5 million worth of work on the berths for cruise terminal we’re building.”

The new berths will benefit all of Galveston’s large ship customers, including those from Carnival Corporation’s brands, with Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Vista being just one of the ships that will use them. Port of Galveston has also signed a new 10-year agreement with Disney Cruise Line for the preferential berthing of its ships.

Rees says that Galveston’s location poses particular logistical demands. “Because 70% of cruise passengers drive to Galveston to get on cruise ships, our biggest challenge is handling that amount of traffic at the port,” he explains. “We have about seven million tourists that come here every year and the road between the city and the port is not built to handle that traffic.”

Following a series of public meetings, the decision was taken to move ‘high and heavy’ cargo (mostly tractors, buses and bulldozers) to the end of the port to reduce traffic congestion. In addition, the port is renovating an old industrial boulevard to create an internal road that will accommodate cruise traffic.

Another issue that is being addressed is the port-city relationship, taking into account the proximity of the cruise port to residential areas and the university campus. “We have done a traffic analysis with BA, which includes addressing how we get cruise passengers to spend time locally,” says Rees. “Galveston is an old town, with a lot of charm and lots of old buildings. We like to have our cruise passengers see all that so they’ll come back.”

Unlike its neighbour the Port of Houston further up the channel, Galveston does not suffer from the sustainability issues associated with the petroleum industry. “We have a natural channel so pretty much a free flow of tides in and out,” says Rees. “We don’t really handle any products that are environmentally sensitive.”

In fact, as LNG becomes more in demand in the shipping sector in general, the port is expecting to see substantial gains from the proximity of the nearby fossil fuel plants because of the ease with which it can supply the emission-reducing fuel. “With LNG all around us, we have a competitive edge,” explains Rees. “We have two existing LNG liquefaction plants and two more are on the drawing board, so we feel very confident. We will be bunkering just as other ports are doing. We don’t have pipelines; we’ll bunker it in on barges. Carnival Corporation’s new LNG-fuelled ships will be the first cruise vessels to use the port’s LNG facilities from October next year.”

Regarding other sustainability initiatives such as shore power, Rees says this is not currently on the cards for Galveston. “We require all our ships to burn cleaner fuel while in port, but shore power is not a federal requirement as it is in California, for example. Shore power is very expensive to install and we don’t see it as a need here.”

In addition to focusing on infrastructural developments, the Port of Galveston is working hard to ensure that cruise visitors have a great time in the port and city. “We are on the Galveston Channel, which is across the main street from the tourist area,” says Rees. “We are working closely with the city and the island’s convention and visitors bureau to help the flow of our passengers into various parts of the city and out to the beach. The new roadway will make it easier for passengers to see the city.”

Establishing more tourist attractions such as restaurants and nightclubs within the port itself is just one of the ways in which the port wants to improve the visitor experience as it rolls out the new Master Plan. As the only port in Texas that handles cruises, Galveston is also actively building connections with the big marquee ports in the wider region. Many cruise passengers heading for New Orleans, for example, will drive from Houston and other nearby cities and board their ship at the Port of Galveston. “We have a huge population within a day’s drive of our port,” says Rees. “Houston is 45 minutes away from Galveston.” Making things run smoothly for all passengers using the port is a priority, adds Rees. “We have union labour and our baggage handling staff all go through customer service training. This makes it easy to get on and off the ships. Fortunately, we have a community that loves the cruising business.”

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Michele Witthaus
By Michele Witthaus
08 November 2019

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