SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – In a recent issue of Coastal Current, a front cover story about cruise ships coming to South Padre Island posed a question: will SPI land a) Carnival, b) Norwegian, c) Royal Caribbean, or d) Walt Disney.

Veteran TV presenter Ron Whitlock posed the question to South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl. His answer: “Probably, the best answer maybe ‘E”, all of the above, or “F’, none of the above. But we are hopeful it will be several of them.”

Stahl explained his thinking.

South Padre Island Mayor Dennis Stahl

“Right now, Carnival cruises out of Galveston. Some people say Galveston is our competitor, but one of the first stops on a cruise, probably out of Galveston, through the western Caribbean, the first port of call would be South Padre Island. The other cruise line that is currently operating year-round out of Galveston is Royal Caribbean.

“Norwegian Cruise Lines is interested, especially with the number of ships they have coming on board over the next few years. Disney already operates out of Galveston on a part-time basis.”

Stahl said he and other SPI leaders have already met with most of the cruise ship operators. Those they haven’t, they will have soon.

“Within the next ten days will have met with all of them. We were in Miami last week on the 22nd and 23rd of February and we will be back at the Global Sea Trade Conference on March 5th thru 8th. That is in Fort Lauderdale. We were in Miami meeting with most of the cruise lines, at their headquarters, last week.”

A report by SPI Cruise Group said South Padre Island would be a good port of call for cruise ships. The report said that demand for cruise line vacations will rise in the coming years, that SPI has all the amenities a cruise line is looking for as a destination point, and that tens of millions of dollars would be added to the local economy if cruise ships docked there.

Stahl referenced a news release about SPI leaders attending the upcoming Sea Trade Conference.

“The press release said that Susan Guthrie, our city manager, and myself would be attending the Sea Trade Conference, the 5th thru the 8th. They (the cruise line operators) called and said they would like to meet us prior to Sea Trade, which we took as a positive. I call it a learning exercise for us because they ask us a lot of great questions.”

Stahl said there are a number of things South Padre Island must consider if it wants to develop as a port for cruise liners.

“There are many things we have to consider. How we handle it, the tours that we have, our infrastructure, where they dock, coordination with (County Judge) Eddie Treviño and the rest of the Cameron County commissioners. So, there are a lot of things we still have to work through.”

Stahl said that when considering whether SPI has capacity to handle cruise liners, a good way of looking at it is thinking of the island as a factory.

“If you call it a factory, South Padre Island runs four or five months out of the year. It doesn’t run all year long. There is an off-season here. We tried to get across to the cruise lines there is plenty of capacity here, or an empty factory if you will. So, we would welcome them to help us level out our year.”

Whitlock asked Stahl about the possibility of using the 4,000-seat amphitheater Cameron County is building at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island to lure cruise ships.

“There are a lot of ideas floating around right now. Cruise lines usually package several types of on-board entertainment and some of those are what I would call oldies rock n’ roll or oldies country music shows. Their theater may not seat everybody who might want to see a particular show. On the first evening of a cruise, the cruise operators may want to use our amphitheater. They have asked questions about that.”

Stahl said SPI leaders are still in the discovery and evaluation phase.

“I would say right now, it is still early in the process and we are doing our evaluation and then we will be back. We are leaving Sunday night to go back to Fort Lauderdale to ask and answer more questions, to try to understand if we want to, as a city, move forward on. What I had said earlier was that we think it is a four-step process and we are getting near the end of stage one. We are feeling pretty positive about it. We have got to calculate what is right and best for the City of South Padre Island.”

Asked by Whitlock about the prospect of cruise ships traveling between South Padre Island and Cuba, Stahl said:

“Our consultants presented seven different potential cruises. Most of those are to what is called the Western Caribbean. The furthest eastern point was the Grand Cayman Islands. I did not see Havana on there, but I know there is a lot cruise activity into Cuba.”

Asked to respond to those concerned that SPI could not handle the volume of passengers a cruise ship would bring, Stahl told Whitlock:

“A cruise ship has anywhere between 3,000 to 5,500 passengers. Some people say that would overwhelm the island but in three weeks for Spring Break we will have 65,000 people here. So, while 3,000 to 5,500 people sounds like a lot it is barely getting the factory rolling.”

Asked for a wrap up comment for Ron Whitlock Reports, the Rio Grande Guardian and 88 FM, Stahl said:

“We are very thankful that the cruise lines have exhibited so much interest. The cruise line industry is going to grow eight percent a year over the next nine years. That is just what we call ‘hulls on order.’ We know that in the next seven or so years the number of passengers on cruise ships is going to double, and they are looking for ports. We are hopeful they would think South Padre Island would be an attractive spot for them.”

Editor’s Note: For a previous story on South Padre Island attracting cruise ship operators, click here.