The cruise industry could start raking in some very profitable chips if Atlantic City continues preliminary plans to invest some of its gambling profits in a marketing study to determine the economic feasibility of a cruise operation there.

The 10-year-old gambling mecca, which has shuttle air service to LaGuardia, Philadelphia and Washington and daily flights via Piedmont Express and USAir, expects to launch a "very preliminary" $8,000 marketing study to see if it can attract some of its yearly 31.8 million visitor trips aboard a vessel in the 1,000-passenger range.

Atlantic County Tourism Development Planner Suzanne Longacre said "there's a whole spectrum of opportunities for a cruise operation here because we're within a three or four-hour drive of a market with more than 100 million people."

"We think that Atlantic City probably makes a lot of sense as both a cruise port and as a port of call because the casinos and the boardwalk would certainly give cruise passengers enough to do here for either a day or an overnight," Longacre said. "We're looking at the possibility of a one-day or short cruise operation or as a homeport for longer cruises."

Although Longacre said that her office has "two or three potential sites on the inlet" that appear to have the greatest potential for a cruise facility, she stressed that the project will not proceed until the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders gives its expected approval on Oct. 11.

The 60-day study is expected to be launched by mid-October. The potential project would be a joint venture between the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, Atlantic County and the Atlantic County Transportation Authority. The casino authority was specifically created by the State of New Jersey to fund potentially profitable investment projects on both a county and statewide level.

One industry analyst said that Atlantic City would certainly have appeal as a port of call because of the obvious dining, entertainment and gambling attractions and the airline, motorbus and tour operations network that's already in place. He added that Atlantic City tourists would also have a "propensity to cruise" because they're already inclined to spend money and are actively seeking a good time.

Longacre said there are currently daily flights between Atlantic City International Airport and both Boston and Baltimore and that there are daily shuttles to LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelpha and Washington's National Airport. She added that about 14 million tourists travel to Atlantic City each year via charter bus and that local officials are hoping to attract private capital to the venture.

The firm of Post, Buckley, Schuh and Jernigan has been hired to undertake the study.