Editorial: Many benefits to cruise-ship boom

If you’ve been to the waterfront in the last couple of weeks, you may have noticed a marked increase in happy, suntanned tourists strolling the Embarcadero, visiting local shops and frequenting area restaurants. There’s a good reason for that.

Right now, The City is at the very peak of a historic boom in cruise ship business, with more than 50,000 passengers expected to dock here in the 15-day period ending Tuesday.

The late spring boom is part of what is expected to be a record year for cruise ship business here, thanks to aggressive courting of the industry by the Port of San Francisco. That emphasis is expected to result in 15 different cruise lines making 90 calls to San Francisco this year, bringing nearly 240,000 passengers. Three years ago the total number of passengers was less than 200,000.

That also explains all the smiles on the faces of the local restaurateurs and even cabdrivers, who have definitely noticed the upsurge in business. City officials estimate the cruise ships will deliver from $60 million to $90 million in net revenue to The City — money going directly into local cash registers.

The City has long been one of the world’s top tourist destinations, and the growth in cruise ship business represents a new revenue stream that adds to The City’s crucial tourist industry. But San Francisco also needs world-class cruise facilities to grow that new business.

Port officials are planninga new main cruise ship terminal at piers 30 and 32 in South Beach, at a cost of $50 million to $100 million, to replace the current 92-year-old terminal at Pier 35. That facility was not built to handle modern cruise liners, and with the industry trend pointing to larger and deeper ships, failure to replace the outdated Pier 35 terminal would quickly push San Francisco down the list of desirable ports of call in the competitive West Coast market.

The port is attempting a complex public-private partnership for the new terminal at piers 30 and 32 that includes office space and a 120-unit condominium project, the Watermark, that is already built and selling fast. Officials say news that the project’s lead developer appears to be pulling out of the terminal project should not jeopardize the plan, as other developers are already expressing interest.

San Francisco’s aggressiveness in building its cruise-ship infrastructure to open up new economic possibilities is in keeping with its forward-thinking embrace of other potential sources of revenue and jobs, such as biotech. But The City’s elected officials can and should become more vocal proponents of a new terminal.

A world-class cruise ship facility would be a key step toward opening up entirely new avenues for growth in The City’s top local industry. That’s an outcome that all of City Hall should be putting at the top of its agenda.

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