he dream of bringing cruise ships to South Padre Island isn’t new, though it’s always remained just that: a dream.

But the Island’s time may have finally come. That’s according to Jay Lewis, president of Miami, Fla.-based MarketScope Inc., who recently formed SPI Cruise Group with other travel industry experts for the purpose of developing the Island as a port-of-call for cruise lines.

Specifically, the Island is envisioned as a stop for western Caribbean cruises, likely those leaving out of Galveston, which has a booming cruise industry. Lewis, an industry veteran, formed SPI Cruise Group with IDEA, a planning design firm currently at work on Port Grand Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island; industry consultant Cruise and Port Advisors; and Newman PR, which counts among its clients the Florida Keys tourism council and Carnival Cruise Lines.

In the past, Lewis had consulted with the Port of Brownsville about the possibility of establishing a full-fledged cruise-ship port, though the port decided not to pursue it. He realized, however, that the Island possessed the “necessary and sufficient conditions” to potentially succeed as a port-of-call — basically a day-excursion destination for cruise ships.

Lewis made a compelling case to SPI’s municipal leaders, who signed on to a $100,000 expenditure to launch Phase 1, which will entail a sustained, aggressive marketing and communications campaign to get the attention of cruise industry executives. That effort will take place between now and mid-March, leading up to the Seatrade Global Cruise Conference taking place that month in Fort Lauderdale.

At that event, the cruise industry’s most important international conference, SPI representatives will be able to pitch the Island as a port-of-call to cruise industry executives.

“It is very much at the beginning stage,” Lewis said. “Right now, cruise lines are relatively unaware that South Padre Island exists. We’re not starting from square one. We’re starting from square zero.”

In addition to generating publicity for the Island, the next two and a half months will be spent actively pursuing meetings with cruise-line itinerary planners, the people who decide where the ships dock. SPI Cruise Group has an edge since all its members have industry connections built over many years, Lewis said.

“At least we’re not coming out of the blue,” he said. “We’re a known quantity. If we request a meeting, it’s a good bet they’ll sit down.”

Also working in the Island’s favor are unique tourist assets compared to other ports-of-call — such as Sea Turtle Inc., the SPI Birding Center, and seven miles of unspoiled beach, Lewis said.

“Eco-tourism is a hot button these days,” he said.

There’s also horseback riding, deep-sea fishing and “all the things you can’t do in Minneapolis, Minn.,” Lewis said. Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville and King Ranch also make the list of attractions, he said.

Also, as traditional ports-of-call in the eastern Caribbean, such as St. Martin, are becoming “worn out” from too many visitors, cruise lines are looking for alternatives, while the cruise industry itself is exploding, Lewis said.

“The demand is so great that the shipyards can’t keep up with the demand from the cruise lines,” he said. “It’s big business, and it’s growing like crazy.”

All of this increases the odds that, in the not-too-distant future, cruise ships may be mooring off the SPI coast. The preferred option is to build a pier at which ships can dock, though another alternative is “tendering” passengers to and from shore in smaller vessels, Lewis said.

SPI City Manager Susan Guthrie said one thing she likes about the SPI Cruise Group project is that it’s not costing huge amounts of money up front. Rather, it’s incremental, with various “go, no-go” points along the way to help officials determine whether to proceed, she said.

“If there’s interest we’ll go to the next step,” Guthrie said.

With the help of SPI Cruise Group, Island officials will make the strongest pitch possible to cruise industry representatives, she said. Meanwhile, getting cruise ships to dock at the Island would have huge ramifications economically, Guthrie said.

“The original estimate was just one large ship a week could have up to a $19 million economic impact to the community,” she said.

Also, it would help plug a big hole in the Island’s economy during the offseason, Guthrie said. The peak season for cruise lines is November through April, which coincides with the slowest time of the year on the Island, she said.

And while launching a project of this size can be “a little bit scary,” the Island is right to pursue this one, Guthrie said.

“We really need to be positive and put our best effort forward, and go for it,” she said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

By STEVE CLARK Staff Writer