Tampa's Port director warns about the future of the cruise biz

That's because new "mega-ships" don't and won't be able to fit under the bridge in the years to come. Wainio says that there are two sizes that luxury ships come in these days - small, mid-range ships that hold between 2,000-3,000 passengers, which are not the ascendant type of design that exists these days, and the much larger ships that hold as many as 6,000 passengers, which Wainio says Tampa's cruise terminals can't handle.

When asked directly by Commissioner Kevin Beckner if that meant a diminishing number of tourists coming through cruise ships in the long term, Wainio said "Longer term, yes."

In his update to a strategic plan to the MPO, Wainio said that countries like Columbia and Brazil buy high end electronic construction materials and specialized equipment for mining facilities that exit through Tampa's Port. Imports that come through the port include Orange Juice and a lot of wood products from Brazil, as well as grapes, berries and apples coming in from Chile.

He said that most of the goods that come from Mexico come by truck, whereas it would be more efficient to have it come by ship.

But when asked by Beckner if there were any new export opportunities out there, Wainio admitted that the fact is, most of the things exported from the Port are not manufactured in Florida, but instead come by truck from other ports of call.

"I told (Governor) Scott face to face, you can pour money into Ports, but the umbrella that drives the need for that is economic development. They need to spend a great more effort on encouraging economic development…if you don’t bring in right firms that manufacturing, you’re not going to create export opportunities…they need cargo to take out, otherwise they’ll go to Savannah and Charleston (in South Carolina), they’ll truck down to Florida like they do now," he said. He also mentioned that recently that the Port loaded up a ship recently with railroad ties to Panama - but those rail ties were made in Pittsburgh.

Tampa’s container terminal now encompasses 40 acres, served by three rail-mounted gantry cranes and a 100-ton capacity mobile harbor crane, on a 43-foot-deep channel.

Tampa City Council and MPO member Lisa Montelione remarked to Wainio that "the perception is you need a 50 foot deep port to be competitive," but had said previously that's not necessary, adding that perhaps deepening to 45 feet would be sufficient.

The Port Authority Director replied that the Tampa Port currently is as deep as "any port out there," and said that competitive ports like Houston and New Orleans have no plans at this time to deepen their ports, but said Miami is doing so. "I'd love (to go to) 48 feet, but that's very expensive," he added.

click to enlarge Richard Wainio - SWFBUD
Richard Wainio

click to enlarge Richard Wainio - SWFBUD
Richard Wainio
  • Richard Wainio

Fully 25 percent of all of the revenues that come into the Tampa Port Authority are due to the luxury cruise ship business, with 60 percent of that business coming from people who drive and park their cars in the long-term lot at Channelside.

Port Authority Director Richard Wainio says that the business has never been better, with an expected 940,000 passengers expected to go through the port during the upcoming cruise season, which begins in November and runs through April. And next year should be better, he promises, with the hopes of attracting a million people walking through the turnstiles.

But after that, the future isn't so rosy.

Speaking to the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization Tuesday morning, Wainio admitted that the Sunshine Skyway Bridge's size (182 feet above the water) is definitely a factor that will limit expansion of that part of the Authority's revenues in the years to come.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.