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By Rodger Rees, Galveston Wharves port director and CEO
Who could have imagined 22 years ago when the Carnival Celebration became the first ship to homeport in Galveston that we would grow to be the fourth most popular U.S. cruise port with more than 1 million passengers a year.
Visionary Galveston Wharves Board members and community leaders took a leap of faith to convert a nearly 100-year-old cotton warehouse into a cruise terminal in 1990 to attract cruise sailings. The $2 million project at Pier 25 was funded with Tax Reinvestment Zone bonds and a federal urban development loan.
The terminal was used for day sails and seasonal sailings until Carnival Cruise Line expressed interest in homeporting in Galveston.
Ten years later, the port launched a $10.6 million renovation and refurbishment project for the terminal, the single greatest investment in port history at the time. The terminal was rededicated with fanfare on Sept. 27, 2000, and Gov. George W. Bush proclaimed the week of Sept. 24-30 Texas Cruise Week.
The Celebration made her inaugural voyage from her new home port on Sept. 30, 2000. Carnival doubled down by homeporting a second ship in mid-summer 2002.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Line first sailed from Galveston in 2001, with eight 7-night sailings to the Western Caribbean. That same year Galveston was ranked 10th among U.S. cruise ports based on estimated passenger numbers.
In 2002 Royal Caribbean and the port signed an agreement to develop Galveston’s second cruise terminal at Pier 28. In November, the port welcomed the Splendor of the Seas.
2 Decades of Cruise Growth
Through the years Carnival, Royal, Princess, Disney, Norwegian and Celebrity cruise lines have sailed from Galveston. Driven by industry demand, the port has continued to invest in improvements at its cruise terminals and expanded port-operated cruise parking.
In November 2022, we celebrated the opening of our third cruise terminal, a $125 million, state-of-the-art facility built at Pier 10 in partnership with Royal Caribbean. The terminal is home to Allure of the Seas, the world’s largest class of cruise ship, and other Royal Caribbean ships.
This third terminal has contributed greatly to the port’s cruise growth. This year we’re poised to set new records with five cruise lines, 13 ships, more than 350 scheduled sailings and an estimated 1.3 million-plus passengers.
Based on national cruise market demand, cruise lines are bringing newer and larger ships to sail from Galveston. In December we’ll welcome the newly built Carnival Jubilee, which has a passenger capacity more than double that of the original Carnival Celebration.
This year the port and Carnival are investing $50 million in major improvements to our original cruise terminal to accommodate larger ships and to give passengers a better experience as they sail from Cruise Terminal 25.
The Bottom Line
In 2002, cruise operations had a $445 million impact on the Texas economy, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines. Galveston had three year-round cruise ships and one seasonal cruise operation.
Based on the most recent statistics, the economic impact has more than tripled. Today, Galveston’s cruise industry positively impacts the Texas economy with $1.6 billion in economic benefits, including 27,000 jobs and $125 million in passenger and crew onshore spending.
A proposed fourth terminal at Pier 16, in partnership with MSC and Norwegian cruise lines, would add a projected $177 million in business revenues, 925 jobs and $5 million in state and local tax revenues.
As a self-sustaining city entity, the port relies on its cruise business for more than half of its operating revenues, which are reinvested to improve and expand the port’s cruise, cargo and commercial assets.
On this 22nd anniversary of our home port operations, we can thank those visionary leaders and early cruise partners who believed in our potential as a cruise port. The best is yet to come!