Thursday, September 13, 2007

SPI a Cruise Destination?

I stirred the pot the other day on the SPI Forum when I commented that I was not a big fan of one of the consultant recommendations for our Island, which was to make it a cruise ship destination. Apparently, this was a near and dear issue for the local politicians, who I suppose put that recommendation on the table. It is also something that the Brownsville Navigation District wants to do. So you can imagine I caught some flak when I said it was a pretty silly idea.

I went from Mr. Goodbar to Mr. Negativity in a heartbeat.

But basically I said that the economics wasn’t there. The common wisdom is that a cruise ship deal would bring in millions of dollars in revenue, create jobs, and sell houses and condos. First, some nautical stuff: cruise stops can be (a) a port of embarkation or (b) a day lay-over. The first requires a huge dock, a terminal, passport clearance facilities, baggage handlers, and transportation access for not only the customers but hundreds of staff and tons of deliveries such as for fuel, water, and fuel. The second can be similar or just be an anchorage slightly offshore, which is serviced by small ferryboats to carry passengers to the land and back to the ship. I think most folks were expecting the second option, since South Padre Island really doesn’t have any port facilities, and it would take years to build one.

In a typical layover, a ship will only spend about eight hours in any port or anchorage – unless it breaks down, of course. Most are daytime layovers which start about 8:00 in the morning and end by 5:00 in the evening, just like clockwork. So let’s say a cruise ship arrived at SPI in the morning and began ferrying passengers to somewhere around Dolphin Cove on County land, the most likely drop-off spot because the Town does not have any facilities on the bayside. Passengers would have an option to come to SPI and of the several thousand on board, about two thirds would probably come over. This would take several hours each direction, since the ferries only hold about 60 people each. So in this case, “cruise people” would basically be on the Island from 10:00 until maybe 3:00.

Now think of it, when people go on a cruise costing $500 to $1,500 dollars they get two things: a very small, cramped double-occupancy cabin and a ton of food. Out goes any “heads in beds” for the Island, and while some people may want more food at lunchtime, they know they have free food almost at any hour of the day. The only thing they might want is cheap booze because the cruise liners really charge exorbitant rates for booze, and tack on 15 percent automatically. So you have over a thousand people with no transportation stuck in Isla Blanca Park. I suspect most would simply go to the beach, or explore the area down by Sea Ranch Marina.

There seems to be some misperception that cruise passengers are loaded with money and will buy expensive stuff all over the Island. This is perhaps incorrect. Many cruise lines actually try to use their own vendors instead of letting people spend their money on the locals, which is true for many ports of call in the Bahamas and Caribbean – even relaxation is highly structured on a cruise ship. No telling what would be done down by Isla Blanca, but by 3:00 the herd will be headed back to the cruise ship. There is actually a head-count to make sure that everybody who got off the ship got back on, with no illegal stowaways. Missing passengers are put on a list and given to the local police. The anchor is raised at precisely 5:00 and the ship leaves, like clockwork.

So tell me, does this sound like a bundle of money for our Island?


Anonymous said...

You know, I love to cruise. I haven't been on many, but I'm just a newbie--only three under my belt.
One of my favorite destinations is Key West. People go to see the history of the town, drink in bars and eat Key Lime pie. Then, there is the famous Sunset festival--a busker fest--it's like the circus everynight, before sunset. Many people like to go to the beach as well, but Key West doesn't have a great beach.
Excursions can be para-sailing, kayaking, beach-break-with lunch and shopping. Key West has neat funky little galleries.
I love SPI, but I dont' see it as a cruise destination. We don't have a hook. SPI has some great annual events, but would need something that speaks to entertaining daily. The beach alone won't do it. Adn the shopping, well, there are only so many t-shirts and shot glasses one can buy.
I don't think it is a good idea.
Could it bring money to the island? It could, but then I think we'd see a whole different place than we'd like to.
The closest port that has ships leaving is Galvaston. That port is not being serviced by Royal Caribbean the way it used to. RCI just seems to be pulling out slowly.
Hotels have benefitted because many peole fly in the day before the cruise so they won't miss the ship.
As a starting port, I see a big NO WAY. We have a hard enough time getting tourists to come here because flying in is expensive and a big transfer pain in the patute. We don't have a major airport close by that could handle the thousands of passengers that a shp would yeild. How could the locals get a flight--jeez.
I'm with you on this one, Sam. It may sound like a really neat idea, but it would not fly.
Why are so many people so insistent on changing this great place?
Char in Littleton

Sam said...

Hey Char, good to hear from ya!

Don't get me wrong, cruising is a rapid growth industry and shipping lines are building them fast as they can. SPI could be a special stop-over but I doubt a routine one. Sure, it is one of the Top Ten beaches in the US. But tropical it is not.

Even Key West has tropical reefs and crystal clear waters. The Bahamas, Cancun/Cozmel/Isla Mujeres, Virgin Isles, Aruba, and places like that are star attractions. our waters here are murky at best. The cruise liners do not even visit the Number One beach in the US, Ocracoke on the outer banks of North Carolina.

That said, if Brownsville Navigation and Port of Brownsville wanted to lure a dedicated cruise ship to this area, it could be done. I'm not sure if SPI has the infrastructure to support a true cruise terminal, but that's probably how we could make the cruise concept work down here. The Port of Brownsville is located along a good highway system and next to an airport, so that would make some sense - although Brownsville is possibly the ugliest port in the US, with all the ship breaking and oil platform work.

But to me that option seems better than asking a cruise liner to anchor offshore ... it certainly could be possible within the next ten or twenty years.

Everett said...

We have been getting a lot of the small Coastal cruise ships in here for the last seven or eight years. They pull in late in the day, lay over night at the dock and leave early in the AM. Mostly all older folks in the 50 to 100 range!! Don't know how much money they leave behind though.