The Port of Tampa is billed as Florida's busiest cargo port, but thanks to cruise port and airport expansion, and a rising local population, it is becoming one of the country's busiest cruise ports, with plenty of room to grow.

In May, the Port dedicated its new $1.3 million Garrison Channel Cruise Ship Terminal bringing capacity to three cruise ships at any one time. The new terminal is the first phase of further long-term waterfront development planned by the Port that could include terminals for three more cruise ships, hotels, and retail space on a 20.5 acre site.

Tampa Airport, anticipating growth that will "be impacted significantly by the cruise industry," will open a new satellite facility with 15 additional gates upping its total to 55 - in November.

Meets Criteria for Lines

These are the criteria cruise line executives look for in a cruise port said John Benson, VP Sales with Regency Cruises and a veteran of cruising from Tampa.

"We brought The Veracruz in there when I worked for Bermuda Star Line in 1981 and then Holland America Line saw our success and came in with the Veendam," said Benson, whose company will start sailing the Regent Sea from Tampa in November.

He cited a non-congested, modern airport with easy air-sea transfers; modern cruise terminals; helpful, solicitous port officials; and the proximity of tourist attractions in Orlando as the major benefits of Tampa. But perhaps even more importantly, he sees Tampa as "A good local market. I can't see how it won't grow. The fastest growing area in the country is nearby Naples; the population of the country is aging and many are retiring to the area. You like to see younger people cruising, but the market is still 55 plus," he said.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Convention and Visitors' Bureau estimates the local population around Tampa at 2 million and rising steadily.

Growth and Current Capacity

Since 1981, when its airport opened, Tampa's cruise ship passengers have increased over 4,000 percent from 12,000 then to a projected half a million this year, according to the Port. This would place it about third in passenger traffic, behind Canaveral and Miami.

The Port says it is ahead of last year's passenger traffic totals, with 283,300 passengers and 227 calls for the first six months of this year, compared to 247,288 passengers and 198 calls in the same period last year.

This year's projected figure will be generated by three vessels already homeported there, and a fourth vessel coming in November.

Currently homeporting in Tampa are the 800-passenger Veracruz, the 1,200-passenger Nieuw Amsterdam (seasonal) and the 1,000-passenger Scandinavian Star. The 710-passenger Regent Sea will be joining them in November.

There is still room for more cruise traffic at Tampa's terminals according to Hal Workman, operations superintendent. "Right now we are under-utilized by about 50 percent," he said, adding that if schedules could be worked out between cruise lines, another ship could homeport and several more could call on weekdays.

Economic Impact of Cruise Industry

The cruise ship business also grew in time to help offset underutilization and revenue loss caused by a decrease in phosphate shipments, said Workman. According to the Tampa Port Authority 1986 Annual Report, net tons of phosphate and phosphate products, the port's biggest export, fell off in the fiscal year of 1980-81 and haven't recovered to levels achieved in the 1970s. "Cruise ship passengers are filling this void," said Workman.

Cruise ship passengers are also spending money in the area. The port estimated an economic impact of $22.5 million last year on the five Florida counties adjacent to its terminal, basing its estimate on a study called "Measuring and Understanding the Cruise Ship Industry," conducted by Philip Cartner & Company of Alexandria, VA.

The study claims cruise passengers spend an average of $225 per person per day while in the embarkation/debarkation area. An average stay was a day and a half, according to the study. The Port arrived at its estimate by figuring its seven-day cruise passenger total into the equation.

The cruise ship industry is also considered a vital part of the Tampa product, according to Beth Walters of the Tampa-Hillsborough Convention and Visitors' Bureau.

Walters said her organization has included all the cruise ships at the port in brochures selling Tampa and will include the Regent Sea when she begins sailing. "We've also done fam trips on SeaEscape and we will do more. As the port develops and grows, we will market accordingly," she said.

Imminent Development

The Port has hired a real estate consulting group, The Hogan Group of Tampa, to conduct a financial feasibility and market research study for its port development plans. According to David Novakoski, president of the furn, the company will advise the Port on on the results of its study around November.

A DRI (Development of Regional Impact) for the proposed waterfront project has been filed by the Port and approved by the necessary government bodies, said Novakoski.