With its Sunshine pleasure ship now calling Union Pier its full-time home, Carnival Cruise Line is turning its focus toward inking a long-term commitment to the Port of Charleston.
"Charleston is a spectacular market for us and we want to be a part of it for the foreseeable future for sure," said Terry Thornton, senior vice president of the Miami-based cruise line.
"We're very committed to entering into a long-term agreement with the port," Thornton added.
Talks between Carnival and the State Ports Authority have been ongoing for months, and Jim Newsome — the authority's CEO — said he'd like the cruise line to keep bringing its fun ships to Charleston for at least another 25 years.
But negotiations for a new agreement were put on hold in recent weeks as both sides prepared to bring the 892-foot Sunshine to town.
"I suspect we'll start those talks again soon," Newsome said.
The Sunshine — which launched under another name in 1995 and underwent a $155 million renovation in 2013 — is the third Carnival ship to be based in Charleston since the cruise line started regular voyages from Union Pier in 2010. It is being repositioned from Port Canaveral in Florida.
The Fantasy was the first ship to call Charleston its home port. It was replaced by the Ecstasy, which has sailed here since February 2016. The Ecstasy will now be sailing from the Port of Jacksonville.
The Sunshine can carry 3,002 passengers — almost 1,000 more than the Ecstasy — and has about 560 cabins with balconies, a perk that was in short supply on its predecessor.
Switching out ships on a regular basis is important, Thornton said, because offering something new keeps previous guests coming back and helps attract new cruisers.
"The Sunshine has so many features that we don't currently have in the market," he said.
Among them: specialty restaurants and bars; outdoor recreation such as a water park and suspended rope course; and a three-level adults-only retreat.
The bigger ship will also expand the choice of destinations available to Charleston cruisers. Along with four- and five-day voyages to the Bahamas, the Sunshine will sail to Bermuda, Cuba and the eastern Caribbean.
"There's a lot of diversity that we weren't able to offer before," Thornton said.
Carnival says its ships are also good for tourism in Charleston because most cruises leave enough time for passengers to spend a day or two in the Holy City without extending the vacation time past a week.
Getting ready for a bigger ship required planning, Newsome said. The Sunshine has sailed from Charleston before, and Carnival used those trips to work out logistical issues. For example, the port had to expand the area where passengers' luggage is placed for pickup. And Carnival started letting passengers decide when they want to get on and off the ship, helping to improve traffic flow.
"Some guests want to get off early because they have a flight, while others like to stay on the ship for breakfast," Thornton said.
Carnival is also making the best of the port's aging cruise terminal, which dates to the 1970s, while a court battle over plans for a new terminal drags on. The current terminal recently got a new roof and flooring to improve its aesthetics, but it remains inadequate for modern cruise operations.
"We’ve made the current cruise terminal work," Newsome said. "Our wish is to have a new terminal and to have an agreement (with Carnival) that supports the building of such a terminal."
Newsome said Carnival has not made its commitment to the Charleston contingent on construction of a new terminal. Thornton said the cruise line is willing to "help in the design and make sure it works well for all parties" if the project ultimately goes forward.
"Obviously, they hope to have a nicer cruise terminal one day, but I don't think that's been a huge impediment," Newsome said. "They're able to fill their ships and they're putting a bigger ship here because they've been very successful."
Carnival estimates its passengers spend $131 million a year in the Charleston area, supporting nearly 2,400 jobs and $93 million in wages. But Newsome said he doesn't see cruising as a big business sector for the port.
The authority expects about 230,000 cruise passengers will visit Charleston this fiscal year — a slight increase over last year's total. Charleston ranks 22nd in the nation for cruise passengers, far behind the nearly 6 million that visit Miami each year.
That isn't expected to change because the local authority has agreed to cap the number of cruise ships at 104 per year, with no ship carrying more than 3,500 passengers.
Cruise ships contribute about $10 million in revenue each year to the authority — about 3 percent of an overall budget that's largely funded by big container ships bringing goods to and from China and other countries.
"We never thought it would be a big business, but it's an important one for us," Newsome said. "All along we've aspired to have a modest cruise business with a great customer, and Carnival is one of the great brands in shipping."