Cruise line withdrawals batter St. Croix's image

By Gay Nagle Myers

CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix -- The decision by Windstar to withdraw from St. Croix for the coming season because of concerns about passenger safety is the latest bad news to hit the beleaguered Caribbean island.

Carnival and Holland America Line, citing similar concerns about crime, previously had scratched St. Croix as a port of call.

Norwegian Cruise Line opted not to return for the coming season, citing lack of passenger demand for the destination.

Now, with the absence of Windstar, the port of Frederiksted has lost a total of 104 calls for the coming season, a substantial hit to an island dependent on cruise-borne business.

Carnival, for one, cited four incidents of muggings and robberies targeting its passengers and crew in a two-month period last winter. "The concerns about crime were ongoing and well documented," according to a Carnival spokeswoman.

Holland America said news reports about St. Croix's crime problems prompted its decision to withdraw.

Island officials also are chalking up Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress as an absentee.

When the ship returns to the Caribbean this fall following its redeployment from San Juan to Tampa, Fla., it will not call in St. Croix. That decision had nothing to do with crime or guest satisfaction issues, a spokesman said.

Despite so many ships passing up the island, St. Croix officials maintain that all is not lost, noting that SeaDream Yacht Club, Celebrity, P&O Princess and Mediterranean Shipping Cruises still will offer a total of 33 port calls in Frederiksted next season.

More importantly, they say, the island is taking steps to combat the crime affecting cruise passengers.

For example, following Windstar's announcement that it was replacing the Wind Surf's eight visits to St. Croix next year with calls at Culebra, Puerto Rico, representatives of the Virgin Islands Police Department, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, St. Croix Restaurant & Retail Association and St. Croix Hotel & Tourism Association developed steps to combat crime against visitors.

Among those steps, according to Pamela Richards, U.S. Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism and chairwoman of the Virgin Islands Port Authority, the government has:

• Allocated approximately $250,000 for beefed-up security measures, including additional police presence and surveillance cameras in high- traffic tourist areas.

• Instituted a new tourism-oriented policing program that will further increase the presence of law enforcement agents on the island.

• Earmarked an additional $2 million to market St. Croix.

• Called for stricter penalties against criminals who victimize tourists in legislation pending in the Virgin Islands Senate.

Left in place is an earlier tourism incentive, initiated by the Virgin Islands Port Authority, that waives St. Croix port fees for ships that call at both St. Croix and St. Thomas.

Meanwhile, loss of the four cruise lines figures to hit the island hard.

Missing 104 calls next season means a "substantial economic loss for St. Croix," said Rick Moore, former chief economist for the territory. He calculated that cruise passengers spend an average of $175 at each port of call.

St. Croix cruise arrivals already were off 25% from January through May, and cruise calls were down from 90 to 56 in the same period.

Although NCL based its decision to withdraw from St. Croix on lack of passenger demand for the destination, Richards said that "considerable time and resources have been invested to make St. Croix an attractive port for cruise ship passengers."

These initiatives include:

• A $3.6 million upgrade and expansion of the Frederiksted pier, completed in 2000 to accommodate Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class vessels

• The launch of Harbor Night celebrations in Frederiksted, designed to entertain cruise passengers with local musicians, street vendors, dining and shopping until ships depart in the evening.

• An increase in the number of taxis and safari buses for transport and sightseeing tours.

• Face-lifts and repairs to historical sites, such as Government House and Fort Christiansvaern in Christian-sted.

• The completion of St. Croix's Heritage Route, linking cultural and historic sites.

Island still suffers effects of '89 storm

CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix -- Located 40 miles south of ecotouristy St. John and hip, urban St. Thomas, St. Croix often is overshadowed by its more-popular siblings.

Over the years, the island has struggled for its place in the sun and share of stay-over visitors and cruise passengers.

Although St. Croix rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo brought the island to its knees in 1989, neither its tourism economy nor its tourism figures ever fully rebounded.

Even hurricanes Luis and Marilyn, which badly damaged St. Thomas and, to a lesser extent, St. John, in 1995, did not pack as permanent a wallop as Hugo.

Over the years, St. Croix has been plagued by high unemployment and low hotel inventory, coupled with the absence of a flagship chain hotel, lack of adequate air access from the U.S. and a climbing crime rate. Improvements included a substantial airport expansion and marketing and promotional campaigns focused on St. Croix's history and heritage.

The 1999 opening of Divi Carina Bay Resort & Casino -- the first casino-hotel in the territory -- was touted as a sure-fire incentive to lure poker-playing vacationers to the island.

Although the casino recently added more slot machines and gaming facilities, the casino is more popular with locals than with visitors. -- G.N.M.

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