St. Thomas killing spurs beach cleanup, other safety efforts

By Gay Nagle Myers

The recent cleanup of Coki Point Beach in St. Thomas, a multi-agency effort that began Aug. 2, is part of a long-term crime-fighting strategy launched in the aftermath of a July 12 gunfight that resulted in the death of a 14-year-old cruise passenger.

The beach, and the adjacent Coral World Marine Park, are near where the shots were fired. The victim was on an open-air safari bus heading to Coki with her family and other tourists when the gang-related incident took place.

Four cruise lines immediately suspended their shore excursions to the beach and park until the lines could ensure the safety of their passengers.

The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, along with several government agencies, the police and representatives of the private sector, immediately launched initiatives and measures to address the rising tide of gang-related violence that had spilled over to the tourism sector.

"The cleanup of Coki is just one part of a broad program now in place to address visitor and community concerns," said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism.

Town hall meetings kept the community informed during the cleanup, as did daily briefings issued by the governor and made available to the public.

Florida Caribbean Cruise Association officials received weekly updates on the progress of the cleanup and the implementation of new security measures.

"Cruise officials will visit to view the progress that’s been made and to reassess their decision to reinstate the shore excursions," Nicholson-Doty said.

USVI parks and recreation officials, the police department, the Public Works Department, Waste Management, the Consumer Licensing Bureau and the Department of Planning & Natural Resources have visited Coki Point since Aug. 2, according to the commissioner.

"The beach was closed for 10 days while this work was in progress," Nicholson-Doty said. "It reopened to the public on Aug. 14, but there will continue to be work on parts of it, especially the renovation and expansion of the bathhouses, through the end of the year."

Debris, junk and garbage from the roadsides were hauled away, vendors were checked for proper licensing and health cards, roadway access to the beach was improved, landscaping was added and parking areas were expanded.

Still to come are a beachfront boardwalk, pavilions for up to 11 vendors and new signage.

Coral World Marine Park, adjacent to the beach, also closed during the renovation. The park reopened on Aug. 16.

Meanwhile, islandwide security measures are being put in place, including an enhanced police presence at St. Thomas attractions, in town, at the beaches, at events and in areas of known criminal activity.

A private security company is working with police to install surveillance cameras, Nicholson-Doty said, adding, "The public knows there will be cameras, but they do not know where the cameras will be installed."

The Department of Tourism launched a $1.2 million marketing campaign immediately after the incident.

"We had to address this head-on," the commissioner said. "This was critical to our response to combat the negative publicity generated by the gang violence."

Marketing included cable TV ads in the U.S. and meetings with industry partners, including travel agents, operators, hotel res centers, airlines, cruises, Caribbean Tourism Organization chapters, the media and the local community within the USVI.

Several promotions were rolled out, including the Sizzlin’ Sampler, which offers a $500 credit on any booking of four or more nights at a choice of 33 USVI properties, good for shopping, attractions and dining. The package can be booked through Oct. 31 and is good for travel from Sept. 15 through Dec. 15.

"This can only be booked through travel agents and is offered by seven major tour operators," Nicholson-Doty said.

September, traditionally travel agent appreciation month in the USVI, already is fully booked with agents arriving in the USVI on fam trips.

Although July visitor numbers are not yet tallied, Nicholson-Doty said hotels and retail establishments reported a strong month.

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