Feasibility study finds abundant South Padre Island cruise assets

A protected harbor, the potential for active adventures and ecotourism, historical interest and several one-of-a-kind attractions are among the plusses to support the development of South Padre Island, Texas, for cruise calls.

As well, consumer demand exists for the destination, which receives 4.5m visitors a year.

These are among the findings of SPI Cruise Group, a consortium of cruise industry experts retained by South Padre Island, Texas, to evaluate the popular vacation destination’s suitability to become a cruise port of call.

Based on a site inspection in December, the group completed a matrix analysis to evaluate SPI’s fitness in maritime viability, uniqueness and branding, consumer demand and revenue possibilities.

An initial desktop study of available meteorological and oceanographic data indicated safe harbor conditions protected from predominant wind and waves due to the location on the eastern shore of the bayside of the world’s largest barrier island. Three potential berthing locations were identified, each requiring a different level of dredging.

Assessment of potential landside cruise guest reception facilities led to the conclusion that they should be limited and temporary, with minimal environmental impact. Considering the plans for the redevelopment of Isla Blanca Park, cruise guest services structures can be limited in scope and cost. The group ascertained that the greater park area on the south end of the island is among the best natural cruise ship arrival zones in the Caribbean, as almost no other berth in the region is immediately adjacent to a natural white sand beach.

The preferred berthing site would lend itself to several pier configurations with relatively small environmental footprints and the least amount of dredging required. A Phase 1 stationary pier could be expanded later with a floating structure or additional gangway elements connecting to shore.

The group identified three predominant brand destination themes to spark cruise industry attention.

When it comes to tropical adventures, National Geographic listed South Padre Island among the world’s top 13 beaches for kiteboarding, and Canadian Traveller said it’s a great place to learn to surf or paddleboard. With 34 miles of beach, SPI offers a wealth of watersports and pastimes that are suited to today’s more active cruise travelers. Deep-sea fishing, a dolphin-watching tour, horseback riding on the beach, scuba diving, jet skiing and deep-sea fishing are all available within four to five miles of the ship.

Concerning ecotourism, as the world’s largest barrier island, SPI is rich in biodiversity. Existing attractions include the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Sea Turtle Inc. and dolphin-watching tours. For those interested in voluntourism, there are organized dune-planting outings. Given the emphasis on sustainability and eco-awareness among travelers, this theme could provide a dynamic mix of attractions and messaging.

As a historical destination, South Padre Island records date from the early 16th century. It has been owned by Spain, Mexico and the Republic of Texas. Heritage tours could be created starting with the Native American story through the colonial era, including shipwreck maps and trips to the 1830s-era lighthouse at Port Isabel.

While travelers in Texas and the lower Midwest have long known about South Padre Island's charms, consumer interest in the destination is national in scope, according to SPI Cruise Group. The group considered SPI’s 'Distribution of Interest' map of the US and found requests for information through online and magazine advertising have come from across the entire country, with significant concentrations in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, California and even Florida.

Overlaying that map with a map of cruise passenger feeder markets showed significant overlap, indicating that interest in SPI as a vacation destination could be developed into interest in the island as a cruise port of call.

A major attractant for cruise lines is the availability of shore excursion opportunities in proximity to a port of call. In this respect, SPI has a diversified and mature tourism infrastructure with a variety of potential shore tours well within distances that could be accommodated on a daylong ship call.

SPI Cruise Group identified several key attractions. Among them: a white sand beach within walking distance of the ship; three exciting and different day tours to world-class, unusual and attractive venues (King Ranch, the Gladys Porter Zoo and Nuevo Progreso, Mexico); and a Schlitterbahn waterpark within walking distance of the ship. Two nationally recognized ecological attractions are the SPI Birding & Nature Center and Sea Turtle Inc.

SPI Cruise Group concluded South Padre Island has all the attributes necessary to support cruise visits.

'There hasn’t been a new US cruise port of call since Key West hosted its first cruise ship in 1969, and there’s a reason for that,' said Jay Lewis, managing director of MarketScope Global and project leader for the SPI Cruise group. 'It takes a very specific combination of attributes for a place to qualify as a cruise port of call. Like Key West, South Padre Island has history, culture, an inviting climate and both waterside and landside attractions in a compact package as well as a safe, navigable harbor and a berthing location just steps from the beach.

'I can’t think of another American destination that offers a similar combination.'

Posted 15 February 2018

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Anne Kalosh

US editor of Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Cruise News

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