Carina Alejandro stood in line to board the Carnival Elation cruise ship at the JaxPort cruise terminal Thursday morning, ready for an exciting trip to the Bahamas but little expecting that the good times were about to go to a higher level.
JaxPort CEO Brian Taylor took Alejandro aside and on a public address system announced that she was the 2 millionth passenger to board a cruise ship at the Jacksonville terminal since it started operations in 2003. Taylor presented Alejandro a plaque and some gifts, plus a promise of special attention on the cruise from the ship’s captain, Gaetano Gigliotti.
Alejandro said she didn’t really know what to make of the hoopla as she was boarding the ship for the wedding of her employer from her hometown of Asheboro, N.C.
“I did not expect this,” she said as local media began to hone in. “All these cameras.”
Asked facetiously if the honor has changed her life, Alejandro said “yes” as she laughed.
Port officials used the event to highlight the growth of JaxPort’s cruise industry in the past 13 years. The first millionth customer arrived five years ago, which was eight years into operations, an indication of the recent uptick.
The Jacksonville cruise terminal is situated between two other larger cruise ship terminals in Port Canaveral to the south and Charleston, S.C., to the north. Jacksonville’s cruise ship Elation, at about 850 feet with a capacity of about 2,000 passengers, is smaller than the vessels that use those other two ports, but the JaxPort cruise terminal has carved out its own reputation in the industry.
“I think we have a niche market that this ship fits perfectly in Northeast Florida,” said Victoria Robas, terminal director for Blount Island, Dames Point and cruise operations for JaxPort.
Robas said though many people who use Jacksonville’s cruise terminal arrive mainly by car, they’re drawn from a variety of states. The typical cruise is five days, usually shorter than voyages launched at larger cruise terminals.
“We do serve a market … for those passengers who for a variety of reasons — time, cost, convenience — don’t want to use airplanes to get to their cruise vacations,” said Dave Kaufman, senior director of planning and commercial development for JaxPort.
Beyond the passengers, JaxPort officials have long been touting that the estimated 175,000 cruise ship customers each year with about 75 regular voyages support at least 460 jobs and contribute a $167 million impact on the local economy.
Those numbers are notable for North Florida. But they could be much bigger.
The reality of the big-time cruise industry was demonstrated this week as Miami-Dade County officials announced a new Royal Caribbean cruise line project at Port Miami. That project alone is designed to add a new cruise terminal there and is expected to generate 4,000 new jobs, according to Gov. Rick Scott, who praised the deal.
Scott pointed out PortMiami had a world record for cruise passengers in 2015, when 4.9 million customers boarded cruise ships there. Scott said he wants to see even more development of the industry in other parts of Florida.
“Florida is undoubtedly the global leader for trade,” Scott said. “… Florida’s world-class ports helped bring a record 105 million tourists to our state last year and supported more than 1 million travel-related jobs.”
JaxPort has long mulled the possibility of relocating its cruise terminal, which is currently just west of the Dames Point bridge off Heckscher Drive. The bridge itself has been an obstacle to larger vessels that simply can’t fit under the span because of their height.
Mayport Village has been considered as a possible terminal alternative for the cruise industry, but a combination local opposition and the Great Recession stymied those plans.
Kaufman said any relocation of the terminal is off the table for now — but there are still possibilities for expansion at the current facility.
“Now we can grow by virtue of adding another ship,” Kaufman said. “This [Elation] ship calls 75 times a year. So you’ve got another almost 300 days a year available. There are other opportunities for ships of this size or smaller to call on this terminal.”
Drew Dixon: (904) 359-4098