GALVESTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A year after restarting, the cruise industry in Galveston is back to near pre-pandemic numbers, and they're only about to take off with the opening of a new terminal.
Full ship capacity, full parking lots
Last summer, cruise ships returned to Galveston. From March 2020 to July 2021, the industry was paused by the pandemic.
"The $45 million, you can't replace that," Port of Galveston Director Rodger Rees said. "That really put us over a year behind on our infrastructure improvements, our capital plans."
The pain wasn't only felt by the port. Prior to the pandemic, the cruise industry generated more than $100 million locally and supported about 3,800 jobs.
The people behind EZ Cruise Parking, which is a family-run business, had to sell properties just to stay afloat.
"We wouldn't have lasted two months," EZ Cruise Parking COO Charles Tompkins said. "Hands down, we would've folded our tents."
"It was definitely tough," EZ Cruise Parking vice president Jason Hayes recalled. "It was challenging, to tell you the least."
A year later, the company is back to nearly pre-pandemic numbers.
"By the end of the year, we will be at 100 percent," Tompkins said.
The port is nearly back too. During the final six months of 2021, 282,500 passengers took a cruise out of Galveston. During the first six months of 2022, 429,500 sailed out of Galveston.
Rees expects the yearly passenger number to climb to 1 million for 2022. That's a figure made possible, because cruise lines are back to 100 percent capacity, whereas in 2021, they sailed at reduced capacity.
Floating COVID fears never happened after restart
At the beginning of the pandemic, some cruise ships were left floating at sea. To improve the situation, the CDC, local health leaders, and the cruise lines devised a plan that included testing and COVID-19 vaccinations.
Galveston County Health Authority Dr. Philip Keiser said the results exceeded his expectations.
"For me, it really is something we did very, very well during the pandemic," Keiser said.
He added that there was one death tied to a cruise out of Galveston, but no hospitalizations and only a handful of passengers had to isolate when they returned to the island.
"For a while, when we had lots of COVID in our community, it was safer to be on a cruise ship than living in Galveston," Keiser said.
Cruising soon? COVID policy changes about to happen
After the success of the restart of cruising, Keiser wonders what will happen next.
"Am I concerned with more people coming down? Of course, I am," Keiser said.
Ships are sailing at full capacity. In addition, starting Sept. 5, Royal Caribbean will no longer require passengers to be vaccinated if they're taking a cruise out of Galveston.
"I don't particularly like it," Keiser said. "I would rather everyone be vaccinated. The good news is most people who travel on Royal Caribbean are 50-plus, and we know from our own data, 90 percent of them are vaccinated."
The CDC no longer requires cruise lines to report COVID-19 data to local health leaders. Keiser said the cruise lines still keep him informed. If a major outbreak occurs, he said there's a plan to handle passengers.
New terminal, new cruise lines
In November, Royal Caribbean will open a new $100 million cruise terminal. It's a facility we got a tour of that you'll see only on 13.
More than 75 percent of the work is done. The port said the project is six weeks ahead of schedule. It's a new facility some worried wouldn't be constructed when the pandemic shut down the industry.
"Royal (Caribbean) said, 'Give us a year," Rees recalled. "We did. You can see what happened. It worked out. The terminal is near completion."
It's not just a new terminal. Two new cruise lines, Norwegian and Princess, will come to Galveston soon part-time.
Rees hopes that changes to full-time. If it does, Galveston could go from about 330 cruises a year to more than 400.