What is the U.S. Virgin Islands doing to woo new cruisers, win back repeaters, attract more cruise ship calls, welcome larger ships and entice more passengers to disembark and spend at the shops and sights on the islands?
These are questions that are getting a lot of attention these days, according to Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism, and as Gov. Kenneth Mapp. Both attended a recent meeting of the newly formed Ports of the Virgin Islands-Charlotte Amalie Task Force.
A similar task force is being developed for St. Croix and will launch in the fall.
Mapp said the need is to reengineer the Virgin Islands product and elevate the guest experience. "We are competing in a changing, dynamic environment and are in need of a complete shakeup of our business models," he said. "The key is to respond to visitors even before they realize what they need."
Cruise passengers in the U.S. Virgin Islands topped out at 1.7 million in 2016, down from the all-time high of 2 million in 2014. St. Thomas accounted for all but 100,000 cruisers, who visited St. Croix.
"Cruise traffic has not registered the same growth as overnight visitors," Nicholson-Doty said. "We had a significant reduction in cruise calls in 2016 and this trend is projected to continue through 2018." She cited problems such as the traffic congestion and roadwork deterioration leading to and in downtown Charlotte Amalie and a need for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at the Havensight and Crown Bay docks in order to attract calls from vessels with significant numbers of foreign passengers.
Another issue, she said, is the changing itineraries in the southern Caribbean where St. Thomas is often among the last of the ports to be visited rather than the first. "If ships call in St. Maarten before St. Thomas, St. Maarten is where the biggest cruise passenger spend occurs," she said.
However, some pretty impressive steps are being taken to improve the USVI cruise experience.
One includes the establishment of a harbor transportation service in Charlotte Amalie harbor. Nicholson-Doty said a Request for Proposal had been issued.
"We're envisioning multiple operators using ferry-type vessels, the largest of which could seat 150, to transfer passengers from Crown Bay dock to the downtown area or to the Havensight dock and mall, which also has many shops," she said. "This would alleviate traffic in downtown. Taxi drivers could then take people on sightseeing tours."
Work already has begun on a 24-hour basis on non-cruise ship days to revitalize the downtown area. Along a section of the waterfront from Market Square to Lovers Lane, old-fashioned street lamps have been installed, electrical lines now are buried underground and bricks line the roadway. Traffic lanes will be widened to speed traffic flow along Veterans Drive, which parallels the waterfront.
Another proposal relates to the dredging of Charlotte Amalie harbor to accommodate larger ships. Currently only Crown Bay can berth an Oasis size vessel. The dredging project is estimated to cost $12 million. But according to a recent study by the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, dredging to accommodate the industry's biggest hardware "will bring hundreds of millions in revenue for ports that are the smartest and are willing to build berthing capacity for the big vessels."
Nicholson-Doty also recommended a separate marketing plan for the cruise segment under the umbrella of the Ports of the Virgin Islands, improvements to the Gallows Bay facility on St. Croix to target smaller luxury cruise ships and the establishment of a berthing committee to optimize the use of all five berths on St. Thomas (two at Havensight and three at Crown Bay).
"We have to look to the future, be cognizant of trends, remain relevant and improve our product," she said.