John Heald arrived at the Alabama Cruise Terminal on Monday wearing a scarlet University of Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt, sporting a smile and ready for a party.
He was in good spirits for someone whose luggage did not arrive with him from England to Mobile.
“I went to the gift shop and bought the only thing I liked,” Carnival Cruise Line brand ambassador Heald said before boarding the Carnival Ecstasy, a ship he captained. almost 30 years ago.
“I would normally wear an Armani suit,” he added, acknowledging the “Roll Tides” and a few dirty looks he got during the day.
“I’m here no matter what I’m wearing to celebrate this special moment,” Heald said.
The moment, a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for Carnival Cruise Line, was a celebration of the final voyage of a ship that is currently the oldest in the Miami-based company’s expanding fleet. For more than three decades, the ship has carried approximately 5.5 million visitors and undertaken more than 2,300 voyages.
The maiden launch was in 1991. The ship’s homeports included Miami, Port Canaveral, and Jacksonville, Florida; Galveston, TX; Long Beach, California; New Orleans; Charleston, South Carolina; and mobile.
Heald served as cruise ship manager in 1993 and 1994. He is also a popular social media personality for Carnival Cruise Line. During the last trip, he hosts a large group of Carnival Ecstasy fans who will be traveling for the next five days to Cozumel and Progreso, Mexico.
“We said goodbye to ships of her class (Ecstasy) but we never had the opportunity to (celebrate) the goodbye,” Heald said. “It’s unprecedented.”
Heald said previous ships were retired during the COVID-19 pandemic and were not offered celebratory finale cruises. For example, the Carnival Fantasy – in Mobile from 2016 to 2020 – was retired and scrapped in Turkey while the global cruise industry came to a halt during the pandemic.
“Having all these people here shows they love this class of ship,” Heald said.
The Carnival Elation belongs to the company’s Fantasy class of ships. Only two will remain after the Ecstasy withdrawal – the Carnival Elation, which is in Jacksonville; and Carnival Paradise, located in Tampa.
“We are a little sad,” said Michele Coppola, the ship’s captain. “This ship is leaving us but on the other side, we see that it has been sailing for more than 30 years. Maybe she deserves a little rest.
spirit of expectation
Mobile’s cruise industry will also rest for about 12 months. The Carnival Spirit, a 12-deck ship that began sailing in 2001, will arrive in Mobile in October 2023. The ship will offer a variety of Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from Mobile, including new seasonal cruises from six and eight days with visits to the Bahamas, Mexico, Belize and other popular destinations.
“Carnival Spirit will look amazing here,” Heald said.
Mobile City executives will travel to Miami to meet with Carnival Cruise Line’s marketing team to discuss strategies for maximizing Carnival Spirit’s performance in Mobile. Carnival Spirit will take a longer vacation from Mobile, a first for the city that has become accustomed to shorter excursions.
Attracting travelers to the city will be crucial to Mobile’s long-term viability as a cruise market, according to Joe Snowden, executive director of Mobile City Administrative Services who oversees the Alabama cruise terminal.
“We’re going to fill this ship and keep it full to show the world what a cruise port Mobile is,” Snowden said.
Snowden said the city will need to make a substantial investment over the coming year to purchase a new walkway — or a walkway that extends from the cruise terminal to the ship.
The walkway is expected to cost $4.9 million, and Snowden said he expects the Mobile City Council to vote on purchasing a new walkway within the next few months.
“It’s an investment that will pay dividends,” Snowden said. “We have to prepare for the ships in five years, in 10 years and this gateway is part of the strategy.”
He said the year-long hiatus from cruising gives the city time to dismantle and remove the current walkway and install a new one.
“Our goal is to be prepared and to have it working before the Spirit (comes) to port,” Snowden said.
One year break
For now, city officials will work in conjunction with ASM Global — operators of Mobile Civic Center and the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center — to market and book the cruise terminal for weddings, reunions, special events and meetings for the coming year.
Economically, the lack of cruising will be a blow to downtown Mobile, where restaurants and hotels are experiencing a surge in activity before each cruise departs from the terminal. The cruise contributes to approximately 35,000 overnight stays per year.
The Carnival Spirit will only be in Mobile during the fall, winter and spring months. It will depart each summer and sail to Alaska, leaving Mobile with a cruising void during a popular vacation period.
“We fully understand the loss of the ship because every four to five days it brings 2,000 new people to downtown,” Snowden said. “We will continue to speak with other cruise lines to bring them in. Our goal is to have two or more cruise ships operating out of the cruise ship terminal so that we can have continuous operations, all the year.”
Another problem, for taxpayers, is the lack of a steady stream of revenue to offset existing debt at the cruise terminal.
The cruise brings in about $6 million a year in gross revenue, money that goes straight into city coffers and helps pay down debt.
The terminal debt is included in an overall debt the city owes at about $150 million, down from a high of $325 million a few years ago. The city’s debts should be paid off by 2030.
Stewart Chiron, a longtime cruise industry analyst who calls himself “The Cruise Guy,” said Mobile’s success in attracting large cruise audiences will be its engine market and metropolitan areas like Atlanta.
“Mobile is the closest driving destination for people in this region to board a Caribbean cruise,” Chiron said. “Going north and east should be part of the plan.”
He also noted that other markets, such as Charleston, SC, will be without a cruise ship in 2024.
“It will be very interesting to see what the response will be for longer departures from Mobile,” Chiron said. “This will help Carnival determine whether or not it will continue (with Mobile).”
Chiron said the city of Mobile has been impressive in embracing the company, such as organizing a shipment for Carnival Ecstasy’s final voyage.
The send-off included music by The Excelsior Band and an appearance by The Azalea Trail Maids.
“Other cities don’t do that,” he said. “It’s a unique thing for a city to get involved, which is a good thing.”
Heald said he believes “the future is so bright for Mobile” and its relationship with the cruise line.
“We’re coming back and we can’t wait,” he said.