The proposed bill that Senators White and Pickard-Samuels are sponsoring sounds as if it is an incredibly bad idea. I am a naval architect, practicing on St. Croix, so I have some idea of the size of boats and the number of passengers involved. Now, I have only read the report in the Source, not the actual bill, I'm not sure where I would obtain a copy of that. Having read the piece, I had several reactions. On one level, I detect a thinly veiled undercurrent of racism. On St. Croix at least many, but not all, of the companies are run by whites, frequently from the mainland. Perhaps there is some resentment against people seen as coming from away taking business away from the taxi van drivers.
The argument about leveling the playing field is completely bogus. Right now, the playing field is level. Passengers coming off of the ships can make a choice: take a taxi van and get a land-based tour, or get on a boat and take a tour from the water. Not allowing the water tour operators to pick up people at the piers is unleveling the playing field, not leveling it.
On St. Croix, there is one sailboat carrying 49 passengers maximum that picks up people at the Ann Abramson pier. As far as I know the Scuba West boat is a six-pack boat, so at most that is six more people the taxi van drivers won't necessarily be carrying. A typical modern cruise ship has upwards of 2,000 passengers. The remaining 1,945 passengers will most likely need taxi van rides somewhere on St. Croix. All of the rest of the dive shops and water tour operators are located in Salt River, Cane Bay, Christiansted, or Green Cay. The taxi van drivers will get all of those rides. Even the people going on the sail or diving in the morning might want a ride somewhere in the afternoon. Obviously there are more water tour operators in St. Thomas but there are far more ships, also.
It is stupid and unsafe to suggest that water tour operators pick up passengers from the ship rather than the pier. The piers are designed to allow people to safely embark and disembark from both cruise ships and smaller vessels. The high-sided ship presents a potential danger to the rigging of any of the sailing tour boats; also, a small boat will react to the swell completely differently from the large ship. Can you imagine the hue and cry if a law was passed not allowing taxi vans to pick up passengers anywhere but at two or three designated spots?
The claim that taxi van drivers would be eased out of their livelihood if the tours expanded to include water taxis is a farce. Many people are going to want to see what St. Thomas and St. Croix look like inland, you can't do that with a boat. Some people are afraid of small boats, but will still get on a large ship, or have no interest in diving or sailing. These people are still going to need rides to some location. Then, there are the people who live here who still need rides on a daily basis.
As far as getting up at 2 a.m. to get in line down at the pier in the "hope of getting passengers" – give me a break. The ships rarely, if ever, discharge passengers before 8 a.m., if not 9 a.m. Certainly many passengers will take a short walk to the waiting boats, but let's do some simple math. Underwater Safaris says that on a busy day they take 125 passengers diving. The Kon Tiki barge holds maybe 150 passengers (frequently 149 is used as a cutoff point due to a change in Coast Guard classification at 150 passengers and above). I don't know how big the Leyland Sneed motor vessel is, nor the Island Girl or Wild Thing catamarans, but let's say 200 each to be safe. That totals 600 passengers for the three of them. The 30 sailboats are almost certainly six-pack boats (6 passengers maximum), so that is 180 people. Total: 125+150+600+180 = 1,055 in round numbers. That is still less than half of a typical large cruise ship's passenger capacity, and if there was only one of those in port in St. Thomas it would not be considered a busy day. Even the Monday after the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania plane there were two cruise ships in St. Thomas with a total of 3,640 passengers on board between them.
If there is any group that is directly competing with the taxi van drivers it is the buses operated by Ann Abramson's bus service. Just one of those buses carries more passengers than the lone sailboat operating out of Frederiksted, and the bus only employs one driver for maybe 60 passengers as opposed to one driver for 15 passengers in a typical taxi van. I do not know if there is a similar large tour bus service on St. Thomas but I would not be surprised if there was.
The final point I have is: Why are the senators even getting involved with this? Having obtained my business license last year I have learned quite a bit about licensing and zoning. As I understand it, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources decides if a business is appropriate for the zoning at a particular location. The Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs then issues a business license for that particular type of business, based upon DPNR's recommendation and other considerations. Where is the need for the Senate to gum up the works? Where is Senator Alicia Hansen who just months ago was blowing her own horn about revitalizing the marine industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands? This is a direct attack on that very industry. Has it occurred to anyone that actions like this might be a big part of the reason that the charter yacht industry in the Virgin Islands is now almost exclusively located in the British Virgin Islands?
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