How the Port of Galveston is weathering the storm

The Port of Galveston is improving its transport and mobility services in preparation for when sailing resumes and to continue its economic contributions to the region

How the Port of Galveston is weathering the storm
The Port of Galveston has been preparing for the return of cruise ships such as Disney Wonder

One of the most popular cruise ports in the USA, the Port of Galveston is usually a bustling hub of activity. Welcoming passengers that have just finished a cruise or onboarding others ready for their first-ever at-sea vacation – these are what drive the port to keep striving to be one of the best. However, Covid-19 has impacted the port as much as any other, causing Galveston’s operations to shut down completely.

Cruise business accounts for around half of the port’s own revenue and is a big economic driver for the region as a whole. In 2019, more than one million passengers sailed from Galveston, passengers and crew accounted for US$115 million in local spending and 13 per cent of hotel guests were cruise passengers. The port also provides over 3,500 cruise-related jobs in the area, and its cruise operations generated over $16 million in state and local sales tax revenues in 2018.

“It’s safe to say that restarting our cruise business will help jump-start Galveston County’s economic recovery with job creation, local spending, tax revenues and hotel stays,” said Rodger Rees, port director and CEO, in a port blog post.

According to Rees, many cruise lines have been spending this “no-sail” time exploring new ideas and concepts to further enhance public health protocols and policies, as well as caring for and repatriating crew members – efforts that have been complicated by pandemic-related travel restrictions and differing government policies. Rees said: “They are addressing a wide range of measures, including enhanced boarding procedures, additional onboard public health and sanitation protocols, monitoring capabilities, quarantine arrangements and shoreside care for guests and crew.”

Galveston has also been using this time to prepare for when cruising can restart, carry out essential maintenance work and make port improvements that will enable it to better accommodate cruise passengers in the future, for example in mobility and transportation.

In July 2020, Galveston Wharves received a $3.75 million grant to improve port access and traffic flow via a new internal roadway. Construction will begin in August 2021 with a view to be completed in 2022. “This is a priority project identified in the port’s 20-Year Strategic Master Plan to support our business growth,” said Rees.

The port also plans to implement a series of industry best practices outlined in its recently developed Ground Transportation Manual, before cruise operations resume in the coming months. The document, which was created by Galveston’s first head of mobility – Julio De Leon – aims to promote consistently high-quality, safe and convenient ground transportation services within the port.

De Leon was appointed in July 2019  to manage the planning, business development and operations of parking and ground transportation in the port. According to Rees, over the past 12 months, De Leon has “championed a number of advances to improve the customer experience and make our business more profitable”. For example, the port has installed automated parking access at its cruise car parks, developed branding for these car parks and improved directional signage, and increased maintenance in these areas with restriping and other improvements. And Rees believes that these projects have already had an effect on the port’s revenues. “In 2019, cruise parking revenues totalled $8.1 million, an increase of $510,000 over 2018,” he said. “During the same period, ground transportation providers paid $1.06 million in cruise terminal access fees, an increase of $170,000.”

While ports worldwide address their internal challenges and prepare for when passengers can return, the industry is  still left wondering when the latter might be. “Cruise lines will sail again when the time is right, and that timing will be based on a number of factors, including, most importantly, input from scientists and medical experts,” said Rees.

Whether this happens in 2020 or 2021, Rees believes that the cruise industry, and Galveston in particular, will weather the storm.

“I have great confidence that the cruise industry will recover from this unprecedented challenge because the cruise lines are responsible operators and because people love to cruise,” he said. “They enjoy the experience, the value and the convenience.

“I also believe that Galveston’s cruise business will be back stronger than ever because we draw from a huge drive-to market of repeat cruise passengers and because people enjoy visiting our beautiful island.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2020 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

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Elly Yates-Roberts
By Elly Yates-Roberts
12 January 2021

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