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Port Manatee has been without cruise service for 15 years. He’s trying to bring it back

Could a cruise line find a home at Port Manatee?

Potential return of cruise ships could help diversify Port Manatee.
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Potential return of cruise ships could help diversify Port Manatee.

Credited with putting Port Manatee finances back into the black, Carlos Buqueras says the port’s potential has barely been scratched.

One way to increase the economic impact on Manatee County would be to bring back cruise service, the executive director of Port Manatee said.

Port Manatee exclusively handles cargo ships, unloading everything from fuel, fruit, lumber, aggregates for road building and more.

The cargo-only approach has worked to the tune of $13 million in revenue during the most recent fiscal year, while cutting expenses by 3 percent.

In the recent past, Port Manatee also hosted cruise service.

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Passengers prepare to board the Regal Empress at Port Manatee in this January 1998 photo. Cruise service was last offered at Port Manatee in 2003. Herald file photo

From 1993-2003, the Regal Empress called Port Manatee home and offered cruises to destinations in Mexico and the western Carribbean.

The cruise line sought to attract passengers from Jacksonville to Fort Myers and got off to a promising start in its first two months, boosting port profits by 86 percent.

But all would not be smooth sailing.

In 1996, the Regal Empress, returning from a five-night cruise to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico, with 737 passengers and 389 crew, ran aground on a spoil island in Tampa Bay.

It just makes sense to have two cruise ports on the West Coast. We are closer to all the destinations, and the cruise companies would save thousands of dollars in fuel by calling here.

Carlos Bucqueras, executive director of Port Manatee

There were no injuries or damage to the ship.

In 2001, the adult entertainment industry chartered the Regal Empress for a cruise to Key West. After port officials raised concerns about the nature of the cruise, which was to include appearances by adult film stars and a forum on partner swapping, the cruise moved its departure location to Port Tampa Bay.

Finally, in 2003, Regal Cruises went out of business, and the Regal Empress was sold in a bankruptcy auction in Tampa.

Carlos Buqueras
Carlos Buqueras

Regal Cruises went out of business owing Port Manatee $350,000. Ultimately, the port recovered about $55,000.

Steve Tyndall, then the port’s senior director of trade development, said the old cruise terminal used by Regal had been surrounded by general and cargo operations.

“It’s difficult to mix passengers with cargo. In the interest of safety and better utilization of assets, we’re hoping to do something at another location in the future,” Tyndall said in 2004.

To date, the terminal has not been replaced, and Buqueras said that it won’t be until the cruise industry provides iron-clad assurances of using Port Manatee.

“Once we have a go-ahead, a level of security that these companies are coming,” the terminal could be replaced, Buqueras said. “But we won’t build a terminal on spec.”

Thus far, it has been a one-way street with Port Manatee officials attempting to woo the cruise industry.

“We are exploring and maintaining ongoing dialogue with all the cruise lines,” Buqueras said.

There are several reasons Buqueras believes there might be a future for cruise lines at Port Manatee.

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The Del Monte cargo ship Hornbay was unloading fruit imported from Central America on Tuesday at Port Manatee. The Hornbay puts in at Port Manatee 52 weeks a year to unload cargo. The port annually imports 48 million pineapples, and more than one billion bananas. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

The East Coast of Florida has cruise ports in Cape Canaveral, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami and Palm Beach.

The West Coast of the state has one: Tampa.

“It just makes sense to have two cruise ports on the West Coast. We are closer to all the destinations and the cruise companies would save thousands of dollars in fuel by calling here,” he said.

Buqueras wants to continue to diversify the 1,100-acre port operation, helping it to prosper in good times and better weather the next economic downturn.

Adding cruise line service would be one way to diversify the port, he said.

“The challenge is to scale up the port, to make it much more significant to the local economy than it is today. We’re just getting started,” Buqueras said.

James A. Jones Jr.: 941-745-7053, @jajones1

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