What Happened to the Bayport Cruise Terminal? We Visited to See What It’s Like Today…

When it comes to cruising from Texas, sailing from the defunct Bayport Cruise Terminal may seem like ages ago. In fact, its sister-port Galveston has grown so large and popular that some people may not even realize there were cruises offered from another nearby port.

From a small cruise port about 20 years ago, Galveston has boomed into a cruise mecca. With a new third terminal under construction, not only will the number of ships sailing from Galveston increase, but also their size.

In the next couple of years, both Royal Caribbean and Carnival will place their largest class of ships in Galveston to cater to Texas cruisers. Norwegian will place one of its newest ships — Norwegian Prima — at the port as well, and Princess also has plans to start sailing from the island.

Today, Galveston is now the only port offering sailings for the tens of millions that live within the state. But it wasn’t that long ago that it had competition from the Bayport Cruise Terminal.

What Was the Bayport Cruise Terminal?

Map of Bayport Cruise Terminal in Texas
The Bayport Cruise Terminal sat about 25 miles northwest of Galveston, putting it farther from open water, but much closer to Houston. Map data: TerraMetrics, Google.

The Bayport Cruise Terminal was a purpose-built cruise port located about 25 miles northwest of Galveston on the western side of Trinity Bay. While the port is considerably farther from open water of the Gulf of Mexico (meaning a longer trip for cruise ships departing and returning to the port), it is considerably closer to the center of Houston, making it a shorter ride for most people heading to a cruise — especially those flying in from Houston airports.

What many people may not know, however, is that the cruise terminal had a troubled history.

According to an insightful report on the Bayport Terminal and its history by Patrick Nwachokor of the Port Houston Authority, the terminal first became operational in 2008. But instead of seeing boatloads of passengers heading in and out, it sat largely empty. 

Outside of when Hurricane Ike damaged the Port of Galveston in September 2008, forcing Carnival to dock some ships at Bayport, the cruise terminal had no tenants, causing many in the media and government to ask questions about the port.

“Despite a dedicated full-time Port Authority staff member who spent years trying to land a cruise line for Houston, the beautiful new facility had no commitment as homeport for a dedicated cruise line,” according to Nwachokor.

Local news stations published pieces over the years that were critical of the terminal. At a reported cost of more than $100 million, many were questioning the decision to build the facility at all.

“You may be looking at the single biggest waste of taxpayer money in Harris County history,” said one story by local news station ABC13.

After several years, however, the Bayport Cruise Terminal finally landed two cruise lines to sail from the port.

Princess Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line both signed up to place a ship at Bayport, with the first trips starting in 2013 — roughly five years after the terminal was first ready for passengers.

In 2013, the number of passengers using the terminal reached just 26,904. However, that quickly soared to 107,672 in 2014 and 125,856 in 2015.

That promising trend, however, wouldn’t last.

Despite strong incentives to sail from Houston, in 2016 Princess and Norwegian no longer sailed from the Bayport. And as a final nail in the coffin, the port even sold the passenger gangway, effectively ending any hope of a comeback.

This time, however, the building would quickly have a new future.

A New Life For the Bayport Cruise Port

So what do you do with nearly 100,000 square-foot cruise terminal, complete with a massive dock and oversized parking lot designed to hold all those cruise passenger cars?

Well, the terminal took on a second life as a “roll on/roll off” facility. Roll on/roll off — also known as “RO/RO” is cargo that can move on and off the ship on its own, such as automobiles, without the need for heavy-lifting equipment.

Soon after the cruise ships left, the facility was leased by Auto Warehousing Company and serves as an import yard for vehicles.

The video below gives a look at the cruise terminal’s new life:

In fact, satellite images show the cruise terminal’s distinctive blue roof and the massive parking lot — which used to hold passenger cars — completely filled with new automobiles:

These days the former cruise terminal welcomes “roll on/roll off” cargo like automobiles, instead of cruise passengers. Satellite imagery: Houston-Galveston Area Council, Maxar Technologies, Texas General Land Office, U.S. Geological Survey.

Visiting the Old Bayport Terminal

We were recently in the area and decided to visit the terminal to see what it looks like today.

Unlike Galveston, which is a tourist mecca, the area around the Bayport Cruise Terminal is decidedly industrial. Turning off Highway 146 onto the road that leads to the terminal, the area was extremely busy, with dozens of trucks heading to and from the nearby container terminal that’s adjacent to the former cruise terminal. In fact, at one point we might have been the only passenger vehicle on the road.

Today the terminal holds autos and other vehicles instead of cruise passengers. Posted signs say no photography is allowed. Image: Google

Needless to say, that sort of area doesn’t exactly get you in the mood to take a cruise.

We then turned onto Cruise Street, a short winding road that heads back to the terminal. On the way, you get an appreciation for the size and scale of the former cruise terminal. Even today, its blue roof is instantly recognizable and — at least from a distance — looks like it could start welcoming cruise ships again tomorrow.

As we got closer, we realized that ours was the only car on this street. Given that the only thing on the road is the terminal, there is no other traffic. Approaching the closed and guarded gates we noticed signs against taking photos or video, as well as a guard shack.

Inside the fences were seemingly hundreds of new vehicles, including work vans, trucks, and even dozens of tractors. It’s clear to see that while the terminal may no longer serve cruise passengers, it is still plenty busy.

Our visit to the terminal saw plenty of cars and tractors. The iconic roof is still bright and cheery, but the otherwise industrial area definitely doesn’t put you in the mood for cruising. 

Unfortunately, due to the security and the fencing we weren’t able to get up close  or inside the terminal for photographs. Even so, you can still see the beauty of the building and how it would be a welcoming spot for cruise passengers starting their journey.

That said, the heavy industrial area immediately surrounding the terminal is far from attractive for tourism. And with a longer journey to and from the open water and the heavy competition from Galveston, it’s clear that despite the nice building, the Bayport Cruise Terminal faced plenty of hurdles to be a success.

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