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Mobile prepares for the cruise crowds

The Carnival's Holiday is 726 cabin cruise ship

MOBILE, Ala. — This Alabama port city is getting ready for a big influx of visitors as the new homeport for a 726-cabin cruise ship, Carnival's Holiday.

The Holiday's sold-out inaugural trip from Mobile is a five-day cruise to Cozumel and the Western Caribbean departing Oct. 16. It marks Mobile's first venture into the big-time cruise business, and it's a challenge the local hospitality industry is ready to meet.

Mobile Area Convention & Visitors Bureau president Leon Maisel said the cruise ship will transform Mobile from a "pass-through" destination to a "go-to" city.

The Holiday, with 1,452 passengers and 670 crew members, is expected to visit Mobile 75 times a year — three calls every two weeks. If fully booked, that could bring at least 120,000 passengers into Mobile each year, with about 30 percent of them spending the night. About 20 percent would arrive by air, but most are expected by car.

The marketing effort for Mobile and the Holiday targets cities within a six-to-eight hour drive, or a 400-mile radius. "The first efforts will be in Alabama, then go out of state," said Landon Howard of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Adding to the city's good fortune was the path of Hurricane Ivan, which left Mobile relatively unscathed. In contrast, it caused major damage in Gulf Shores, a popular Alabama destination for "snowbirds," retirees who head south each winter to escape the Northern cold.

Mobile's 377-room Riverview Plaza Hotel (formerly the Adam's Mark Hotel), a distinctive glass tower overlooking the waterfront, has been purchased by the Retirement Systems of Alabama and will undergo a $17 million renovation as part of the push to make the city more attractive to cruise passengers. Hotel sales manager Diane Hamby says the Riverview Plaza will be a "four-star, four-diamond experience."

"There are very few rooms left (in downtown Mobile) for the inaugural and the next week," said Ron Blount, project manager for a new $19.5 million terminal for the ship. The terminal is located at Mobile Landing, a 14-acre site with a view of downtown that eventually will include a maritime transportation center and museum. Amenities include a 500-car parking lot.

The area also offers historic sites, night spots and seafood eateries downtown, and scenic vistas along the waterfront. But brand-name shopping requires a trip to the malls in west Mobile or a drive across Mobile Bay to Daphne, while the Mobile Greyhound Park dog track is in suburban Tillman's Corner. Seeing these spread-out attractions in a short period of time may be a challenge for passengers allotting just a few hours on their way in or out of Mobile.

About 70 leaders of the city's hospitality industry met last spring at the convention center for a seminar on marketing to learn how to accommodate and attract people brought into town because of the ship. New Orleans consultant Stu Barash told them how to package tours, including restaurant deals and all-inclusive bargains.

Ralph Atkins, whose Southern Fish and Oyster Co. sells a ton a day of locally caught seafood, is among those local merchants who expect to benefit from the increase in visitors. Atkins said he hopes cruise passengers will boost his business with their purchases when their cruises are over, and he's ready to ice down the fresh catch for the drive home. He has also produced a brochure to hand out so passengers can place orders for shipment later.

"If there's 1,500 people and I get 10 percent of them, we're going to have to increase inventory drastically," he said. "This is an unbelievable opportunity to fall in my lap."

Jessica Jones, a spokesman for Wintzell's seafood restaurants in Mobile and Fairhope, said she hopes the cruise ships will "grow downtown." The restaurant has 10 percent discount cards ready for passengers.

Tom McKean of Pensacola, Fla., a spokesman for Big Bus Tours, said he's ready to bring an authentic London open-roof double decker bus to Mobile for tours aimed at the cruise ship crowds.

The Holiday will buy its perishable products in Mobile, such as flowers, produce and fuel. Other spending goes for transportation to and from airports and hotels. The ship's crew will be based in Mobile, which means they could bank here and conduct other personal business.

University of South Alabama economist Semoon Chang estimates homeporting the Holiday at Mobile could generate $21 million, including $3.3 million in spending by passengers. It's expected to create 391 jobs and stimulate $10 million in retail spending from Gulfport to Pensacola, Fla.

"It's critically important to make us (the city) attractive," he said Friday.

Carnival ran a series of cruises in March and April of 2002 out of Mobile to test the market for a potential homeport. If the marketing of Mobile and the Holiday proves successful, Carnival may consider expanding here. "Typically what happens, we put in a smaller ship, test it out. If it's highly successful, we will look at either upgrading the size of the vessel that's there or adding another ship," said Carnival spokesman Jennifer De la Cruz of Miami.