Cruising: Stimpson announces Carnival contract extension

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A week after Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson and a representative of Carnival Cruise Line dropped hints that the company and the city were close to terms on an extension, Stimpson returned to Mobile Monday night with a contract ready for City Council approval.

The agreement in hand isn't a new deal: Stimpson said Carnival is simply exercising its option to continue its current contract, which would expire in December, for another year. But the development is significant on at least two fronts: It provides reassurance that Mobile isn't about to suffer a repeat of 2011, when Carnival abruptly ended service from Mobile's cruise terminal, and it likely gives Stimpson a fresh success to claim in his bid for a second term.

The election is Aug. 22. Stimpson's top challenger is Sam Jones, the former mayor he unseated in 2013. Carnival has never blamed Jones for its decision to leave in 2011, citing various factors such as rising fuel costs - but the loss of cruise service during his tenure was a political albatross for Jones nonetheless.

Stimpson, who'd teased the announcement earlier in the day, made it official as he returned to Mobile Regional Airport following a flight to Miami to meet with Carnival executives. Surrounded by Azalea Trail Maids, Stimpson said, "This is a really big deal for the city of Mobile ... to me it's an affirmation of their faith in Mobile."

Stimpson said it was only 22 months ago that the city and the company had struck an agreement for the return of cruise service. That was followed by months of renovations to the cruise terminal, and the Carnival Fantasy began regular service out of Mobile in November 2016.

Stimpson said the impact on the city's bottom line has been significant. The city is still paying off the terminal, which it bought from Retirement Systems of Alabama, and spends about $1.8 million a year on debt service, plus about $500,000 in operating expenses. But the return of cruise service has replaced that $2.3 million annual liability with a $1 million gain, Stimpson said. (He added that the city is still paying off last year's renovations, so the money isn't available for spending just yet.)

Stimpson said Monday that the city is looking for ways to partner with Carnival to interest more cruise visitors in Mobile's other attractions. "They certainly seem interested," he said.

Stacy Hamilton of Visit Mobile said that the extension is "a huge deal" in part for that very reason: It gives the city more time and more confidence to convince cruisers that there's more to Mobile than a gangway to the Fantasy.

"We've worked with all the attractions in town" to guarantee that cruisers get discounts, she said, and Visit Mobile also is working with travel agents all over the Southeast to encourage cruisers to spend a day or two in town, checking out some of those attractions.

Area hoteliers are reporting a 10- to 15-percent increase in bookings on the nights before and after cruises, she said. And the airport also seems to be seeing a "pretty good uptick" related to cruise passengers, she said.

According to the mayor's office, the agreement will be placed on the City Council agenda "for approval as soon as possible."

The mayor's office estimated that over the course of the year, more than 190,000 cruisers will pass through Mobile, spending more than $18 million.

Stimpson said Carnival has the option to extend the current contract for another year. He said he anticipates another round of discussion about this time next year.