TAMPA For the last two years, port officials have been informally talking with the large cruise lines about the prospects for a new cruise terminal on the fringes of Pinellas County.
On Tuesday, the Tampa Port Authority made the search official. The board agreed to study the creation of a cruise ship terminal west of the Sunshine Skyway, whose height precludes the biggest new cruise ships from serving the Port of Tampa.
Port director Richard Wainio and other local port officials have been talking for many months with the world's two largest cruise lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, about the possibility of a new terminal near the Hillsborough/Pinellas county line.
But Tuesday's formal vote was a breakthrough in what could be a major, long-term change in the area's prospects to remain competitive with other seaport's cruise businesses.
"Sooner of later, the ships are going to grow," board chairman Larry Shipp said. "The worst thing to do would be to build (a cruise terminal) on speculation."
The board wants to begin by determining how interested the cruise lines are – and how much they would invest – for a new terminal whose related businesses likely would primarily benefit Pinellas County.
A Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman earlier this month told The Tampa Tribune that Carnival would be interested in a port facility that would not require its ships to pass under the Sunshine Skyway bridge.
"It is very unlikely that Carnival will build any new ships that can operate from the current facility," spokesman Vince Gulliksen said.
Board member Sandy Murman launched the discussion by dismissing a suggestion fellow Hillsborough County commissioner Victor Crist made earlier this month about the Tampa Bay Rays. Crist suggested the cruise facilities be moved to Pinellas in exchange for St. Petersburg dropping opposition to a baseball stadium in Hillsborough County.
Port officials said a new terminal for larger, taller ships that could carry 5,000 passengers does not mean that the current class of cruise ships that carry between 2,000 and 2,500 passengers would no longer serve the Port of Tampa.
The good news for the Port of Tampa: most cargo ships envisioned to serve Tampa in the future can pass beneath the Skyway bridge.
Port officials on Tuesday also said Royal Caribbean International will replace its current cruise ship serving Tampa, Jewel of the Seas, with Brilliance of the Seas beginning with the 2013-2014 season. Both belong to the Radiance Class of ships, with 2,112 passenger capacity.
The new ship will offer four- and five-night Western Caribbean itineraries