June 28, 2002 – V.I. government officials, private sector representatives and cruise industry personnel spent much of the last week huddling together, first in Miami last Friday and then Wednesday and Thursday on St. Croix. The meetings were at the behest of the government in a bid to bring cruise ships back to the port of Frederiksted.
On Thursday afternoon, those on St. Croix held a press conference to discuss what they had accomplished and what they hope to do.
One thing was made clear: The cruise lines that have announced their departure in the last two months — Carnival, Norwegian and Holland America — will not change their mind and return to the island in the 2002-03 season.
Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association representatives said it takes two years to plan a cruise itinerary. That would make even the 2003-04 season pretty much set in stone. But that's not necessarily so, industry representatives intimated. However, whether any changes occur will depend entirely on what happens on St. Croix, they said.
The delegation that traveled to Miami last week comprised six public officials — Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards, Port Authority executive director Gordon Finch, Police Chief Novelle Francis, St. Croix administrator Gregory Francis, and Kent Bernier, the governor's assistant for economic affairs — plus Frank Fox, president of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce.
They met in the morning with Carnival Cruise Lines officials, including port operations director Gordon Buck, the man who sent multiple message to territorial officials between last December and April expressing concern about crime on St. Croix victimizing passengers and crew.
Fox said Carnival's president and four other officials stated repeatedly that their reason for pulling out of St. Croix was crime. "They said it's not a marketing problem, not a tours problem," he said. After V.I. officials outlined steps they plan to take to reduce crime when ships are in port, Fox said, the Carnival officials responded that "they want to see the plan move from the paper to the pavement. They want to see it implemented, see it be a reality."
He added, "They are not committing for this year, next year or the year after. They want to see us bring the plan that we made to fruition, and then make an analysis."
The V.I. delegation met in the afternoon with Royal Caribbean Cruises officials, including Michael Ronan, director of destination development.
There, Fox said, the officials emphasized that the repositioning of the Nordic Empress, which has called at St. Croix and St. Thomas seasonally for the last six years, was a marketing decision to change its homeport from San Juan to Tampa, and had nothing to do with any concerns about the Virgin Islands. The move was planned and announced 14 months in advance, they said.
Also planned well in advance was the arrival of a new cruise ship, Celebrity Cruises' Constellation, which will begin calling at St. Croix and St. Thomas this fall. Celebrity Cruises is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises. It is the only large ship scheduled to call at St. Croix on a regular basis in the next 18 months.
Carnival's concerns carry over
At one point in the conversation, Fox said, a Royal Caribbean executive made a comment along the lines of "with Carnival having raised the issue of crime, they were, in effect, warned by Carnival's pullout. He stressed that they are going to be very vigilant about the safety and security provided on St. Croix."
Buck and Ronan also were members of the F-CCA delegation that traveled to St. Croix this week. Early arrivals were taken on an island tour Tuesday evening, then the next day a half was devoted to discussions at the Tamarind Reef Hotel of what needs to be done to attract cruise ships back to the island, and how to go about doing it. The working document for discussion was the Tourism Department's 37-page draft of a new St. Croix marketing plan.
Ronan emphasized at Thursday's press conference that Royal Caribbean has not abandoned St. Croix, pointing to the Constellation's schedule. But he said St. Croix must be able to deliver a product and make Frederiksted exciting. And he issued a challenge: That the coming season represents an opportunity for St. Croix to impress Constellation passengers so that they tell others about their favorable travel experience.
Police Chief Francis said he "felt we had a very good dialogue with the cruise lines" in Miami, where he detailed initiatives proposed to address crime concerns. "Our appeal was to ensure them that we would do everything possible to make their guests safe," he said. He said Police Commissioner Franz Christian outlined those initiatives again on Wednesday at the Tamarind Reef.
Francis said the police will continue to work with other law-enforcement agencies to target specific areas such as the Sandy Point Marine Preserve, Cane Bay and Dorsch Beach. In a new Tourist Oriented Police (TOP) program, he said, six patrol officers per district will be assigned to address visitor-related issues and brief cruise and airline passengers on safe practices and the proper reporting of incidents during their visit.
Also, he said, surveillance cameras will be placed in towns and at intersections within 120 days on all islands, funded by a $350,000 grant. "This has proven successful in other areas," he said.
Francis said Thursday that some crimes apparently reported to cruise lines were not reported to the local police. "Looking at stats, we had no records equal to that of cruise lines," he said. "They [visitors] were not reporting to the V.I. Police Department." He added, "Not knowing makes it hard for us to accurately address it."
"We can't be everywhere at once," he continued. "We want to get the community involved. We hope to train our taxi drivers to be our eyes and ears." He said drivers' two-way radios can help with security. He also said the Legislature has appropriated $100,000 to pay for tips leading to solving crimes in the territory.
Sen . Emmett Hansen II said at the press conference that "Crime is crime. We are making sure that everyone is safe. The same guy that would rob a tourist would rob you if he had the right opportunity. If we are safe, they would be safe." He pledged support within the Legislature for further funding initiatives.
Private sector partnering
Taking part in the Tamarind Reef strategy sessions were representatives of The West Indian Co., Public Works Department, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, Christiansted Restaurant and Retail Association, Our Town Frederiksted, Dalton and Associates/Harbour Night, St. Croix Alive and several taxi groups.
Sherryann Wiltshire, president of Sherry's Taxi and Tours, which represents 40 tour drivers, said she was optimistic about the new marketing plan. But, she said, "We need to be better about disseminating information if we want to do good preparation."
Paul Bannis, president of Frederiksted Taxi and Tours, said he was encouraged by the input offered by all participants. There was "good progress," he said. "Now we have something we can work on."
The marketing plan is aimed at enhancing St. Croix's appeal as a cruise and overnight destination so as to increase visitor arrivals and expenditures. It emphasizes collaboration with industry partners to develop a favorable business environment. It specifies weaknesses in St. Croix's tourism product to be addressed with the goal of making the island the premier cultural and heritage destination in the Caribbean.
Pamela Richards said the territory's cultural nuances need to be resurrected. "We have to make sure that we all welcome guests as we used to," she said.
Among the cited minuses at the moment: high cost of airfare, garbage and abandoned cars, increased crime and social problems, the lack o
f convention centers and a sports arena, underdeveloped agriculture and marine industries, an unfriendly investor climate and slow recovery after hurricanes.
Proposed efforts include developing homeporting and bunkering opportunities, creating employment opportunities, collaborative efforts in the protection and conservation of marine life and wildlife, and public-private partnering to ensure visitor safety.
There was a suggestion that St. Croix take advantage of the overnight tourists on St. Thomas. It was suggested that with fast ferry service available during season and planned to become year round, there is the potential to get a flow of day-trip visitors.
On Wednesday night, Fox said, discussions centered on "dealing with crime, developing new initiatives, improving what we have, communicating, in general providing an experience their guests will be happy with and that we can live with."
Fox said he had only skimmed the 37-page plan, but "I didn't see anything controversial." He said it is specific in terms of ideas and plans, whereas the Long Term Operating Agreement between the V.I. government and the F-CCA and its member lines that took effect last fall is "pretty loose in that it didn't tell you how to achieve objectives."
One thing the agreement spelled out was the need for the Tourism Department to host a visit by cruise line sales and marketing executives on St. Croix to provide input toward "enhanced marketing of the destination, developing a list of passenger activities and events, and required infrastructure improvements." That what the past week's meetings were all about.
A timeline for implementing the marketing plan is in place, and the government and community representatives are to meet monthly to monitor progress toward meeting the agreed-upon goals.
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