Texas is known for barbecue, the oil industry, big personalities and wide-open spaces. What it’s less known for is cruising. But the Port of Galveston is working on that.
Long overshadowed by Florida, the Lone Star State’s sole cruise port is having a growth spurt. The number of passengers sailing from the Port of Galveston is on the rise as cruise lines make major terminal investments and base their newest and largest ships at the Gulf of Mexico location.
Galveston’s three-terminal cruise port currently ranks as the fourth busiest in the U.S. The three busiest — Port Canaveral, Port Miami and Port Everglades — are all in Florida, the epicenter of the cruise industry.
But Galveston is growing, and fast. The port estimates it will see 1.3 million passengers this year, its busiest ever, steadily rising from 861,000 in 2016 and surpassing its previous record of 1.09 million cruisers in 2019. It has quickly recovered from a pandemic decline, growing to 1.04 million passengers last year.
“Thirty percent growth is unheard of in this business,” said Rodger Rees, port director of Galveston Wharves, which manages the port. “But, you know, people are cruising now.”
And more of those people live within driving distance of Galveston than ever before, something the largest cruise lines have in their sights.
Texas has been the third-fastest-growing state in the U.S. over the past decade, with a population approaching 30 million people, second only to California.
“Our location is just so close to so many people,” said Rees.
‘People are cruising now.And our location is so close to so many people.’
Rees was the CFO of Port Canaveral for five years before moving to the Port of Galveston in 2018. Although Galveston’s growth trajectory was already on the upswing pre-Covid, Rees said he believes the port’s recent success is an outgrowth of the changing travel patterns since the pandemic, namely a preference for driving over flying.
“People started saying, ‘I don’t want to get on the airplane. I want to drive.’ I know my family has done the same thing,” he said. “We used to fly everywhere, and now we drive everywhere.”
Fifty million people are within a 12-hour drive of Galveston. Narrow the search to an eight-hour drive, and 30 million are within reach, Rees said, and more than 70% of the port’s cruise passengers drive to the port. About half of those drivers are sourced from the Houston area, which has 7 million residents and is just an hour’s drive away. It was the second-fastest-growing city in the U.S. from 2021 to 2022 in number of residents, with a jump of more than 170,000 people — right behind the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, a four-hour drive from the port.
“That’s what’s attractive. A person who can get in the car and within a day be in Galveston,” he said. “I think that’s what has really helped us grow. We have easy access.”
Those population trends are not lost on the cruise lines, which are heavily investing in the Texas port, perhaps none more than Royal Caribbean Group.
Rees called Royal’s development of a $125 million “zero energy” cruise terminal, which opened in November 2022, a game-changer for Galveston. The 161,300-square-foot terminal opened at Pier 10 for use exclusively by Royal Caribbean. It has 30,000 square feet of on-site solar panels and advanced boarding technology, such as mobile check-in and facial recognition.
“We invested in a new terminal so that we could have an Oasis-class ship sail from Galveston,” said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales, trade support and service for Royal Caribbean International. “At that same time, we wanted to build a state-of-the-art terminal with 100% solar power. Being green on land while sailing the blue seas is a priority for Royal Caribbean.”
The terminal opened with the 225,000-gross-ton, 6,780-passenger Allure of the Seas, the first Oasis-class ship to sail from Galveston and the largest cruise ship to launch from Texas. It will be replaced with the Harmony, a newer Oasis-class ship, next year.
Freed said Galveston is attractive because it is easy to get to from the West Coast and the center of the country. Rees said negotiations with Royal to build the terminal began in 2018 and that despite the pandemic pause that led Royal and other cruise companies to pile up record debt, the company never considered pulling back. “We jumped right back in with Royal and said, Let’s get going,’” he said.
What’s in store
Rees said that cruise lines putting bigger and newer ships in Galveston are being rewarded, with vessels sailing full.
“We did used to get older tonnage here where these ships were not the nicest ships, but then [cruise lines] started seeing the marketplace,” he said.
Royal is among several lines mixing larger and newer ships with their older ones at the port. It homeported two ships in Galveston this year, the 1999-built Voyager of the Seas and 2010’s Allure. Next year, the line will station the 2016-built Harmony for year-round sailings; it will be the first ship sailing from Galveston to offer itineraries with calls at Royal’s private Bahamian island, Perfect Day at CocoCay.
Carnival Cruise Line plans to debut its newest ship, the 182,800-gross-ton Carnival Jubilee, in Texas at the end of the year with seven-day Western Caribbean itineraries. With capacity for 6,500 passengers, the new Excel-class ship is four times larger than the first Carnival Jubilee that sailed from Texas in 2002.
Norwegian Cruise Line made its Galveston debut last year with a one-off sailing of the then-new Norwegian Prima, which it plans to sail from the port this winter season.
Travel advisors say Galveston fits a need to find new places to base capacity as cruise lines build more ships.
“Miami and Florida are busy, and as cruise lines continue to add capacity, Galveston is the next major port for expansion,” said Tom Baker, president at Houston-based Cruise Center.
Henry Dennis, a leisure travel advisor for Frosch in Charlotte, echoed that sentiment.
“With all the new ships coming online in the next few years, you cannot continue to base them all in Florida ports,” said Dennis, who sells a lot of Royal Caribbean.
‘With all these new ships coming online, you cannot base them all in Florida ports.’
Carnival was the first cruise line to homeport in Galveston back in 2000 and has based a ship there year-round ever since.
It is currently sailing three vessels from the port: the 2012 Carnival Breeze, sailing four- and five-day cruises; the 2009 Carnival Dream, operating six- and eight-day sailings; and the 2016 Carnival Vista, which is offering seven-day voyages until it ships out to Port Canaveral in November.
The Carnival Jubilee will be arriving in Galveston by year’s end, and the line also plans to reposition the Carnival Miracle from San Francisco on Oct. 1, 2024, to offer what it describes as “Texas-sized” sailings of nine, 10, 11 and 12 days through spring 2025. That will put Carnival four ships at the Texas port late next year.
Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, said the line’s long-term commitment to Galveston fits with its overall strategy to build up in secondary ports with strong drive markets.
“There were other brands that would come in and out, but in a lot of these places we were the only brand that would be there year-round with multiple ships,” Duffy said. “Fourteen U.S. homeports really enabled a lot of the U.S. population to get to a Carnival cruise ship without having to fly.”
According to Carnival, Galveston attracts guests from as far away as the Midwest, Southwest and Western U.S. Duffy said its stronghold in Galveston is also part of a strategy to locate ships near military bases (there are 15 in Texas) to attract that clientele.
Duffy also attributes the line’s U.S. homeport growth, including Galveston, in part to the pandemic. As areas around the world were slow to reopen to cruising or otherwise off limits due to geopolitical conflict — such as St. Petersburg in Russia, a main attraction on Baltic cruises — several lines have redeployed their ships.
“All of this is happening because a lot of cruise lines built ships for Asia, for the Chinese market. With that being closed … where are they going to go? So, they’re coming into the U.S.,” Duffy said.
For example, Princess Cruises, which had been absent from Galveston for six years prior to 2023, sailed the Ruby Princess on five- to 11-day cruises from the port for the first four months of the year and will return to homeport the Regal Princess from November to March.
Aside from Royal’s new terminal, more investment is happening in Galveston to accommodate the increase in capacity and larger ships.
The nearly 200-year-old port was established with former cotton warehouses, which now serve as cruise terminals.
To handle the Carnival Jubilee, the port is undergoing a $53 million terminal renovation that will include gangway modifications, a ramp, a pair of elevators, an escalator and a new roof.
When completed, the terminal’s historical exterior will remain intact, but the interiors will be modernized.
MSC Cruises, the fourth-largest cruise brand, is looking to enter the Texas market with a major terminal investment. MSC entered into a memorandum of understanding with Galveston Wharves to build a terminal, a project still being negotiated, Rees said.
Estimated to cost more than $100 million, the terminal could open by summer 2025.
“The prospect of developing a new homeport in Galveston is exciting because it represents a big step in our ongoing North American expansion,” Ruben Rodríguez, president of MSC Cruises USA, said in a statement.
‘Developing a homeport in Galveston would be a big step in our North American expansion.’
If the project comes to pass, this fourth terminal for Galveston would be shared with Norwegian Cruise Line, which says that Galveston gives it a competitive advantage in being the only line with a private island in the western Caribbean, Belize’s Harvest Caye.
“We’re putting our best hardware there because, frankly, the opportunity is so good,” said Todd Hamilton, senior vice president of new ventures for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.
Galveston itself is a low-key tourist destination, with its Victorian architecture and the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, and it is undergoing a renaissance with new hotels and eateries.
But as a cruise port, the city does have its downside.
According to Baker, traffic congestion is often an issue there, and much of the available parking is not adjacent to the pier area.
While Baker said that having two major airports providing reliable airlift to the Houston area makes Galveston well situated to attract clients from the Midwest and West Coast, Galveston itself has no airport. Houston Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental are 45 minutes and an hour away, respectively, with no traffic, but Houston is notorious for its road congestion. And while Hobby’s location is far more convenient for getting to Galveston, it is a much smaller airport with fewer airlines that fly there.
Kelly Brewer of Cruise Planners is happy to see the younger and larger ships in Galveston where roughly half of her bookings sail out of, but she’s also noticed fewer itineraries including Belize and Grand Cayman, which she attributes to the ships being too big or having too many passengers to tender.
“For whatever the issue is, the restrictions are limiting the itineraries offered from Galveston,” Brewer said.