Vacation Cruise Ships Return to New Orleans for First Time Since Katrina

Christian Baehr set out Sunday on his first long trip since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and he did it on the first cruise ship to make a regularly scheduled stop in the Crescent City since the storm.

"I really needed the getaway," said Baehr, of Long Beach, Miss., one of about 2,200 people who boarded the Norwegian Sun on Sunday for a voyage to Mexico and ports in Central America.

Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, hit hard at what had been a burgeoning business. Four cruise ships had used New Orleans as their home ports, including the Norwegian Dream, a smaller sister ship of the Sun. More than 700,000 passengers left and arrived through the Port of New Orleans in 2004.

In the first eight months of this year, the big cruise ships have made several one-time stops in New Orleans, serving 308,000 passengers, according to the International Council of Cruise Lines, an industry group.

The last regularly scheduled voyage in or out of the city was by the Carnival Sensation, which left just before Katrina. The Norwegian Sun is the first of four ships returning for regular cruises through the rest of this year and in 2007.

Among the passengers boarding Sunday was Gary LaGrange, president and chief executive officer of the Port of New Orleans.

As soon as Norwegian Cruise Line, owned by Genting Group of Malaysia, announced its return, he said, "I decided I was going to be on it. I'm taking my first vacation" since Hurricane Katrina.

LaGrange wore a suit and carried a briefcase, saying the trip would be at least as much play as work. "I brought books to read" — all about baseball, he said.

He was in sharp contrast with Baehr, who wore denim shorts and a Hawaiian shirt printed with cockatoos, and was accompanied by about 50 friends and relatives. "We booked this in February so we could get all of us on together," he said.

By coincidence, the same day the Norwegian Sun left New Orleans, Norwegian crown Prince Haakon appeared in the city to mark the centennial of the Norwegian Seamen's Church.