MOBILE, Ala. – When Doris Robinson, her daughter and niece board the Carnival Fantasy on Wednesday, they intend to grab a bottle of champagne and start walking toward the ship’s bow.
There, they will raise a toast to Robinson’s late sister, Shirley Porter. It will be an poignant moment for the three women, made possible only because cruising returned to Mobile.
“It’s a special and emotional trip,” said Robinson, who will sail on the five-night vacation with her adult daughter, Lia Robinson and niece, Denise Logan. The trip is in honour of Porter, who died five years ago from cancer and who had once been Robinson’s faithful travelling companion.
Not lost on Robinson is the underlining meaning of the trip for Alabama’s largest coastal city. For the first time in more than five years, a cruise ship is departing the Alabama Cruise Terminal for a vacation excursion.
“It’s like winning the World Series,” said Robinson, who is travelling to Mobile from her home in Huntsville. “Being on the first trip out the second time around is exciting.”
The 2,056-passenger ship is fully booked and is set to depart around 4 p.m. amid pomp and fanfare. The newly renovated Fantasy, which will sail to Mobile from Miami, is part of Carnival Cruise Lines’ Fun Ship 2.0 fleet featuring top chefs, glittering pools, casino gambling and spas.
And while initial cruisers may look forward to their stops in Cozumel and Progreso, it’s the symbolism of the trip that has stirred the most emotion in a city that tags itself “Born to Celebrate.”
“It’s about the excitement of Carnival coming back to Mobile,” said Angela Williams, who oversees a Carnival cruisers Facebook page. “I do think this is a major step forward for Mobile to have Carnival coming back.”
Said Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson: “It will truly be a great moment for all of south Alabama when we see the Carnival Fantasy enter the Mobile River on Wednesday.”
It’s a return that, just a few years ago, wasn’t expected. Analysts and some city officials doubted that they’d ever see Carnival return for regular sailings out of the Alabama Cruise Terminal after the Carnival Elation’s final trip in 2011.
While full details about why Carnival left Mobile have always been somewhat murky, analysts pointed to the company’s inability to raise prices for its Mobile cruises, hindering its cash flow from the region.
The city was left with an empty cruise terminal, and big bills still due for its construction in 2004. The city has been making $1.86 million annual payments on the terminal’s outstanding bond, but with little revenue to pay for it other than tax dollars. The bond won’t be paid off until 2030.
In the meantime, however, Mobile found itself tossing lifelines to Miami-based Carnival during the company’s times of need. Notably, in February 2013, the cruise terminal welcomed the disabled Carnival Triumph, which had been left floating in the Gulf of Mexico following an engine fire with 4,229 passengers on board amid filthy conditions. Frazzled yet joyous passengers arrived to the song “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring on the terminal’s sound speakers as the nation looked on.
Five months later, the Carnival Conquest was diverted into Mobile after its trip to New Orleans was cancelled by a tugboat sinking in the Mississippi River.
Despite Mobile’s kindnesses, there was never an indication on whether Carnival – the world’s largest cruise company – might someday come back.
“I never lost hope,” said Shelia Gurganus, the terminal’s general manager, who booked weddings and group events inside the building in an effort to generate revenue. “I felt like it would happen and that we needed to be patient.”
In 2013, Stimpson – who was running for mayor against incumbent Sam Jones – held a news conference near the terminal to offer his thoughts on regaining a cruise ship. Once elected, he declared, it would be among his top priorities, although industry insiders said that cruise lines didn’t base their home-porting decisions on local politics – such as who is seated in the mayor’s chair.
Two years later, in 2015, Stimpson and a contingent from Mobile returned from Miami following a meeting with Carnival officials with good news: A cruise ship was returning to Mobile starting Nov. 9, 2016, under a 13-month agreement that included 84 sailings.
Carnival is expected to annually carry 170,000 passengers out of the Port of Mobile.
Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Lines, told AL.com last week that the company’s ability to “deliver results we’re responsible to our shareholders” is “front and centre” in decisions where to place ships.
In Mobile’s case, she acknowledged that the city’s embrace of the company, along with additional attractions in downtown geared toward vacationers, played a role.
Information from: Press-Register, http://www.al.com/press-register/