A devastating hurricane season last year that took a toll in the Caribbean tourism industry may have also opened a door of opportunity to increase tourism at South Padre Island. “The four major cruise lines have contacted South Padre Island about establishing a port of call there,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino said during a recent State of the County event in Harlingen.
Trevino credited the county for helping to create an interest in cruise ship visits through its investment to improve county parks infrastructure and features that enhance the Island’s profile as a tourism destination. The most recent project got underway in March with the start of $17 million in renovations along the beach at Isla Blanca Park. Old pavilions are coming down to make way for newer, more modern facilities with dune walkovers, picnic tables, restrooms and other amenities.
Officials broke ground in February for a $6.2 million amphitheater along Dolphin Cove in Isla Blanca Park. The outdoor theater will seat 4,000. An adjacent 6,800-square-foot multipurpose building will offer audio and video equipment and seat up to 250 people. Another $13 million is set aside for upgrades and improvements to RV parking facilities in the park.
“All this will make it the premier park on the Texas coast,” Trevino said, adding that the improvements are being funded through beach user fees, occupancy tax and car rental tax revenues generated on the Island.
The Isla Blanca Park makeover comes on the heels of the completion of $3.75 million in upgrades to E.K. Atwood Park just north of the town of South Padre Island. The newest features include an elevated plaza with five pavilions, restrooms, rinse stations and dune walkovers.
Interest in luring a cruise line to the Island was bolstered in February by a preliminary study conducted by a consortium of cruise industry experts retained by Island officials. The study concluded that the Isla Blanca Park improvements would make it “one of the best natural cruise ship arrival zones in the Caribbean, as almost no other berth in the region is immediately adjacent to a natural white sand beach,” according to a press release about the study.
The consortium also noted an important factor for cruise lines are opportunities for excursions onshore, and pointed to the Island’s “diversified and mature tourism infrastructure with a variety of potential shore tours within distances that could be accommodated on a daylong ship call.”
Trevino also talked to the group of about 130 people about other ways in which Cameron County has helped to bolster economic development, with one of the prime examples being the county’s decision to pass the freeport tax exemption, which eliminates taxes on imported goods brought into the county for up to 175 days.
“We were at a competitive disadvantage because of the freeport tax,” he said. “This levels the playing field between Cameron and Hidalgo counties.” Trevino credited Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell and other city officials for pressing the issue. “This was a priority issue for Harlingen because they were working on a specific project,” he said.
That project was CARDONE Industries’ decision to build a 950,000-square-foot distribution center in the Harlingen Industrial Park. CARDONE is an auto parts remanufacturer with existing facilities in Matamoros, Brownsville and Harlingen. “The shining example of how the freeport tax exemption can help economic development is CARDONE,” Trevino said.