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Margaritaville at Sea cruises could be a boon for Tampa's tourism economy

The Islander, a Jimmy Buffett-inspired ship, will set sail from Port Tampa Bay starting Friday. Officials call it an exciting way to lure tourists to the region. 

A cruise ship that brings the island spirit of the late singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett is now calling Port Tampa Bay home.

Starting with a maiden voyage Friday, the Margaritaville at Sea Islander will sail year-round from Tampa.

The ship, which accommodates 2,650 guests, will offer four- and five-night trips that include stops in Key West and Mexico. Six- and limited edition seven-night trips will be offered in 2025.

Christopher Ivy, the CEO of Margaritaville at Sea cruise lines, said adding Tampa as a homeport is an exciting moment.

“Since we launched our first ship, Margaritaville at Sea Paradise, last year, we’ve been working to expand what our guests have been asking for: more amazing views, longer itineraries and new ports of call,” Ivy said.

The Margaritaville at Sea Paradise sails out of Palm Beach.

Amanda Travaglini, the company’s chief marketing officer, said choosing Tampa was easy.

“We started scouting for a secondary port location, and Tampa is just such an incredible opportunity. It reaches so many people within Central Florida,” Travaglini said. “I know what a tremendous community it is and how much growth that there has been, with spectacular amenities that we could bring our guests to come and experience.”

The pool deck is shown with a video of Jimmy Buffett playing on a big screen.
Savannah Rude
A video of Jimmy Buffett singing plays on the Landshark Lookout pool deck.

The impact on Tampa-area businesses

At an event for media and travel agents Tuesday, Port Tampa Bay officials welcomed the Margaritaville at Sea Islander.

Wade Elliott, the port's senior vice president of marketing and business development, said the ship will not only have a positive impact for travelers, but for Tampa Bay business as well.

“If you look at each one of these ships, when it makes a port call in Tampa, it generates over $360,000 worth of impact,” Elliott said. “It’s a great boost to the region, to the hotels, restaurants and bars, the airlines that deliver passengers, so it really has repercussions above and beyond just the passengers.”

Elliott said cruise ships like the Islander hook travelers and may make them visit Tampa again.

“What we found is more and more people who come to Tampa just to take a cruise, then they’re blown away by everything that’s going on down here, so they come back later, and maybe they’ll just have a vacation,” Elliott said. “They’ll visit the parks and the beaches and spend time downtown, take the trolley to Ybor and enjoy Tampa.”

Port Tampa Bay is the homeport for eight ships from five different cruise lines.

 A giant flip-flop stands in the middle of the Islander lobby.
Savannah Rude
A classic Jimmy Buffet-style flip-flop welcomes guests as they board the ship.

A way to honor service providers

The company has a special offer for U.S. military service members - both active duty and veterans - as well as police, firefighters, EMS personnel, nurses and teachers with its “Heroes Sail Free, Heroes Sail First” program.

Qualifying guests are able to sail free with a paying guest and have access to priority boarding and complimentary welcome drinks, Travaglini said.

“There’s so many amazing teachers and there’s so many active and veteran military here in the area,” Travaglini said. “We really wanted to celebrate the community here in Tampa as well so we made it extra special for the launch of the Islander.”

Elliott said the program is a great opportunity for service providers in the Tampa Bay area.

“It’s fantastic that they’re giving back and recognizing these heroes who walk amongst us and to really sort of contribute and to give them an opportunity to enjoy time with their families and stuff,” Elliott said. “(It’s) very innovative, and I really think they’re setting the bar to get the recognition of the most important service providers.”

And for people who just think of overserved Jimmy Buffett fans when they hear “Margaritaville,” Travaglini said the cruise is meant for all ages.

“It really is something a lot of people ask us. ‘Well, is it for adults?’ Because it’s Margaritaville, and it’s like no, Margaritaville really is about a state of mind,” Travaglini said. “It’s a lifestyle, it's really more about the place you want to go and have a great vacation.”

Elliott added that the Islander will be the perfect addition to the Tampa Bay area.

“This is just such an innovative and marquee brand for Tampa Bay to be associated with, and it gives us another important flavor of ice cream in our ice cream store when people come to look to go on vacation.”

A big plastic cheeseburger is pictured on a green turf with the Tampa skyline behind it
Savannah Rude
Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" is honored as part of a combination miniature golf/cornhole activity course on the Margaritaville at Sea Islander cruise.

Savannah Rude is the WUSF Stephen Noble Social/Digital News intern for summer 2024.