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Port Tampa Bay looks to keep cruising despite restrictions on mega ships

T— Megaships that can carry more passengers than the populations of many small towns might be all the rage for some Florida ports, but Port Tampa Bay is wagering that it can keep its cruise business robust without the floating cities.

Those giant ships can’t reach the Tampa port due to the height of the Sunshine Skyway bridge; besides, port officials say, not everyone wants to vacation with 5,000 people in close quarters.

“Everything that is new and big and exciting isn’t for everyone,” said Raul Alfonso, executive vice president and chief commercial officer for the port. “I think there are tastes for every type of attraction.”

And if the Cuba market opens up, he said, Port Tampa Bay could increase its cruise business with the moderate-sized ships already using local berths.

The cruise ships that can slip under the Sunshine Skyway are enough to keep the cruise industry in Tampa thriving for the next 15 to 20 years, he said, because more cruise lines are updating and refurbishing ships rather than retiring them. Also, plans for a bustling Channel District filled with trendy restaurants, shops, a park and a marina will add to Tampa’s allure and keep the ships coming, Alfonso said.

Still, this may not be a forever situation, he said. Port Tampa Bay has not completely ruled out developing a plan that would allow for the megaships in the future. It’s just not ready to move forward on a major feasibility study.

“We know that for the longer term, we’ll have to make a decision. We’re not there yet. This is something that has to be taken into consideration as we move forward with our Channelside plan.”

In 2015, the moderately-sized cruise ships boarded 867,114 passengers at Port Tampa Bay, and Alfonso said he has reason to believe that number will grow over the next three to five years.

The ships boarding passengers in Tampa range in size from the 719-foot Holland America Veendam (1,350-passenger capacity) to the 965-foot Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Star (2,348-passenger capacity). The German 2,194-passenger AIDAmar uses Tampa as a port of call when it travels toward the western Caribbean.

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To welcome the new megaships to Tampa would require a huge expense. According to a prefeasibility study released in 2014 by the Florida Department of Transportation’s Seaport Office, it could cost anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion to modify or replace the Sunshine Skyway to allow taller ships through to Port Tampa Bay, or more than $600,000 to build a cruise ship terminal west of the bridge to accommodate the larger ships.

The Tampa Port Authority board agreed that year to send a letter to the DOT asking it to proceed with a feasibility study, but apparently that letter was never sent. State Seaport Manager Robert Emerson said no such study is being conducted at this time.

“We are trying to put it all together,” Alfonso said. “Many things we don’t know. We’ll talk about Cuba and how long that will take and what will the impact be for us.”

There is a possibility there will be three- or four-day cruises to Cuba that wouldn’t necessarily require megaships but that would grow cruise business for Tampa, he said. And ferry service to Cuba is also possible. “There are a lot of possibilities for the future.”

“We have been conducting our own study, per se, with the industry,” Alfonso said. “We need to finalize our master plan for 2030. Cuba could open, and we could have more frequency and more passengers.”

Already, though, the port has moved ahead, unveiling plans last year for the Channel District, between The Florida Aquarium and the historic banana docks along Channelside Drive.

Port consultant Luis Ajamil said in September that the master plan for the Channel District would take about a year to complete. In its earliest form, the district would include four districts on 45 acres — the marina district, the park district, the central waterfront and the cruise district. It would take an estimated $1.5 billion in private investment and require about $200 million in infrastructure improvements that the port and the city of Tampa’s Community Reinvestment Act funds would cover.

The Channel District could be a big draw for those cruising from or into Port Tampa Bay, Alfonso said.

“Keep in mind, our port, our region, is growing. This is more than the cruise industry. Where we are heading as a port, as a market and as a destination, everything lines up in our favor. Very few areas can say they have such a bright future for growth. People want to come here, and we are becoming a more desirable destination.”

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Meanwhile, PortMiami, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral will see big shifts coming from Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Carnival Cruise Line this year.

The biggest change, literally, will be the arrival of the new record-holder for world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s 5,479-passenger Harmony of the Seas, which is set to debut in Europe this spring and then make its way to Fort Lauderdale by November.

To make room for Harmony, Royal Caribbean is sending the 5,400-passenger Oasis of the Seas to Port Canaveral starting in November. Port Canaveral is also benefiting from the giant ship shuffle from Norwegian Cruise Line, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Since PortMiami is now home to both Norwegian Getaway and the new Norwegian Escape, what used to be Norwegian’s largest cruise ship and used to call Miami home, the 4,100-passenger Norwegian Epic, will also make its way to Port Canaveral. The line, which just last fall returned to Port Canaveral after a three-year absence, will bring Epic the same month as Oasis of the Seas.

“We’re a very strong cruise line in Florida,” said Andy Stuart, Norwegian Cruise Line’s president and chief operating officer. “We’ve been here since the beginning. Florida for 50 years has been Norwegian’s home, and we have our two newest ships in Miami, so the opportunity to put one of our big new ships in Port Canaveral was one that we were excited about.”

Norwegian is also bringing a new cruise to Port Tampa Bay with the Norwegian Jade. It will offer a new port of call at Harvest Caye in Belize, which boasts a rainforest, Mayan ruins and wildlife watching. Norwegian will also offer a new 10- to 11-day cruise to the eastern Caribbean from Tampa beginning in the fall, Port Tampa Bay’s Alfonso said.

Carnival Cruise Line will bring one of its largest ships to Port Canaveral when the 3,690-passenger Carnival Magic arrives in April, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Magic is the second of the line’s three Dream-class ships, built in 2011. It’s relocating from Galveston, Texas, which will get the line’s latest Dream-class ship, Carnival Breeze, currently sailing out of PortMiami.

Not all changes are on a grand scale at the ports. Port Everglades just welcomed the 2,260-passenger Costa Deliziosa, which brings the Italian line back to the port after a four-year hiatus. It will sail out of South Florida until March.

Older, smaller vessels, which often make way for newer builds, have proved profitable for lines such as Royal Caribbean, which also is bringing Majesty of the Seas to Port Canaveral beginning in May. At one point, Royal Caribbean had planned on sending the ship, which was built in 1992, to its subsidiary, Pullmantur, but it rethought its strategy, and the 2,350-passenger ship will take over 3- and 4-night sailings for the Tampa-bound Rhapsody of the Seas.

Also coming to South Florida in 2016 will be what’s billed as the most luxurious cruise ship ever built. Regent Seven Seas Explorer will make its way to Miami by December.

Tribune News Service contributed to this report

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