Part of the fun of cruising is exploring new places. But if you are a regular cruise passenger, then those ports of call can quickly become old news. While everyone loves to visit Cozumel their first trip there, by the fifth time, it can be a little boring once you’ve seen everything that you want to see.
That’s why cruise lines are always interested in bringing new ports of call. They add important variety to cruise ship itineraries that help attract repeat cruisers and can also be a reason for new passengers to take their first trip.
Recently, South Padre Island, Texas, has shown strong interest in becoming a new port of call on the cruise lines’ schedules. The island recently commissioned an initial study to determine whether or not it would make for an attractive stop for cruise lines.
And while the analysis commissioned to study the island’s viability went into details on everything from “maritime viabilty” to “uniqueness and branding”, we think that several common-sense reasons give the most weight to South Padre becoming a port of call.
Major Reasons to Like South Padre as a Port of Call
For those of you not familiar, South Padre Island sits at the southern tip of Texas, near the border with Mexico. It’s about 260 miles from Galveston as the crow flies. A popular spot for Spring Breakers, the island offers a fun vacation spot with wide swaths of beach, access to both the Gulf of Mexico and the nearby bay, and tons of restaurants and amusements.
If you’ve never visited, South Padre is the quintessential beach town on the Texas coast. For those reasons and more, it might be the next major port of call.
No Culture/Language Barrier
Let’s face it. While cruise ports can be exotic, they often go out of their way to appeal to American tourists. Visit a port in Mexico and nearly everyone you encounter will speak English. Visit the Bahamas or Jamaica and U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Meanwhile, the port areas near the cruise docks are heavily “Americanized” with restaurants like Fat Tuesday and Margaritaville.
Many cruise passengers like to be in their comfort zone on their trip. After all, people are on vacation and want to be able to relax — not feel out of place or unsure of how the local customs work.
South Padre offers a familiar environment for American cruise passengers. From language to getting around to even knowing how much to tip at a restaurant, the basics are all the same as back home, meaning that cruise passengers can be comfortable the moment they step on shore instead of trying to get a handle on what to expect in a foreign country.
Already Tons of Excursion Opportunities
South Padre is already a major tourist destination for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. That means there are a large amount of attractions catering to tourists.
Schlitterbahn — the world’s most famous water park — built a location on the island before it was recently sold to another party. The waters around the island offer opportunities for everything from fishing to jet skiing to sailing. There are also opportunities for nature lovers such as bird watching, a rescue center for sea turtles, and dolphin watching.
While some ports have to quickly add on the capacity to entertain a shipful (or several) of tourists, the island already has capacity in place.
Miles of Easily Accessed Beaches
Speaking of things to do, the biggest draw to South Padre Island? The beach. The island boasts miles and miles of wide, sandy beaches. And if there is one thing that cruise passengers picture when they book their trip, it’s hanging out and relaxing by the water.
But doesn’t every port offer a beach? Yes, but there are usually strings attached. For example, the nicest beaches in Cozumel are some distance from the port and are usually accessed only by a day pass through a hotel (or heading across the island where there aren’t as many facilities).
South Padre has beaches with public access for miles up and down the island. If a family simple wants to take a cruise to have a day playing in the sand and water, nowhere is that easier than South Padre.
A New Destination for Galveston and New Orleans
If you’re a frequent cruiser who lives in Houston and sails from Galveston, then you’ve likely grown bored of visiting Cozumel and Progreso. These ports (along with a few others like Roatan and Belize City) are a frequent stop on cruises from Galveston. The story is similar with New Orleans.
In response, we’ve seen the rise of ports like Costa Maya on itineraries as well as a few trips to the eastern Caribbean ports like Key West and the Bahamas.
Even so, there are only a handful of ports that are reasonable to reach from Galveston or New Orleans (or even Mobile). Having another option gives more choices for the cruise lines to offer and more incentive for passengers to book another trip in order to visit a new port instead of taking the same cruise again and again. Given the location of the island, shorter 4-5 day cruises would receive a much needed additional port of call to offer different itineraries.
Hurdles the Island Will Face
While South Padre offers a lot to like for a potential new port of call, it’s not perfect. Specifically, we think the following issues could make cruise lines question whether or not to port at the island.
Texas Liquor Laws
If you live in Texas, then you likely know about the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The group is behind enforcement of Texas liquor laws. Meanwhile, if you buy a drink package on a cruise ship from Galveston, then you may also know that Carnival Cruise Lines won’t sell you the package until the next day.
(Note: Royal Caribbean does sell the packages on day one, but offers a limited menu of drinks until in international waters.)
The state’s rules say that you can’t “sell, serve, or offer to sell or serve an undetermined quantity of alcoholic beverages for a fixed price or “all you can drink” basis”.
No worry — Carnival just waits a day to give customers access. Once in international waters, the rules don’t apply. (You can still buy drinks individually on board.)
But imagine a cruise that departs Galveston and then sails to South Padre. This would extend the amount of time that these drink packages can’t be sold. This isn’t likely to be a deal breaker, but could cause headaches.
Ever wonder why most ports of call on a cruise seem to be clustered near each other? This way, the cruise ship doesn’t have to burn as much fuel. Just like running errands in your car, it’s more efficient to keep all your stops near each other.
South Padre is somewhat out of the way from other ports. Galveston is the closest departure port, about 250 miles away, but South Padre is not on the way to popular ports like Cozumel. It’s in a different direction. The issue is even worse for New Orleans. In other words, the cruise ship will have to sail out of its way to reach the island.
Finally, the biggest issue with South Padre as a port of call could be the weather. By most standards, the island is warm — even in the winter months. But it is nowhere near the same ballpark as ports much farther south.
For instance, the island’s average January temperature is a high of 68 degrees and a low of 54. Compare that to Cozumel, who sees a high of 84 and a low of 67 during the same month. Meanwhile, consider the extremes. South Padre does occasionally see freezing — or near freezing — temperatures during the winter.
Most of the year South Padre offers warm weather and is a beach-lover’s paradise. But those cool winter months could be a shock to cruiser’s hoping to escape the cold and go somewhere warm for their vacation.
Overall, there is a lot to like about South Padre as the next port of call — especially for cruises from Galveston. Anyone who has ever visited knows its appeal. Trips there from March through September seem like a no-brainer.
That said, we wonder how cruise lines would handle potential cold weather from December through February, when cruisers are looking for guaranteed warm weather and water.
Offering something for passengers during these months — such as a port complex with indoor heated pools — could go a long way toward attracting the cruise lines in our opinion.