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MORE AND BIGGER SHIPS TO COME, WICO CHIEF SAYS

Nov. 11, 2003 – Edward E. Thomas Sr., president and chief executive officer of The West Indian Co., painted a picture of a local cruise industry that is healthy yet cause for concern on Tuesday at a luncheon meeting of the Advertising Club of the Virgin Islands aboard the Navigator of the Seas in port on St. Thomas.
The Virgin Islands is the "only Caribbean destination where the cruise sector" represents "the same amount of economic activity as the overnight or stay-over sector," Thomas said, citing a comment made by Karen Ford Warner, Caribbean Tourism Organization deputy secretary general, at the annual CTO conference held on St. Thomas last month.
Overnight visitors dominated the local industry until the late 1980s, when the territory lost some of its essential airlift with the folding of Pan American, Eastern and Midway Airlines, and the decade that followed, when two major hurricanes took their toll of island properties and the cruise industry tapped vast new markets with larger ships and more affordable offerings.
The Tourism Department estimates that about 1.2 million cruise passengers will visit the territory in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Thomas said. And it's projected that those passengers will spend an average of $225 each while in port. At the same time, it's expected that crew members will spend some $130 apiece each time their ships call at St. Thomas.
Do the math, and that adds up to $270 million in spending by passengers alone.
"We hope to maintain that level of activity, since retail spending is the key component," Thomas said.
Meanwhile, ever-larger ships are coming into service, he noted. By the fall of 2006, Royal Caribbean International's largest-ever vessel, the first of its Ultra Voyager class, is scheduled to be in operation. With a capacity of 3,600 passengers and 1,400 crew members, the ship will be about 15 percent larger than the current Voyager-class ships, with a length of 1,112 feet and a height of 18 stories.
"We have met with engineers to start designs" to upgrade docking facilities in order to accommodate ships of that scale, Thomas said.
Also, he said, all five of the Eagle-class cruise ships, also owned by Royal Caribbean and also known as the Voyager-class ships, will be calling at St. Thomas starting next fall. These are the Voyager of the Seas, introduced in 1999, and those that have followed annually — Explorer of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas and the brand new Mariner of the Seas.
"St. Thomas will be the one Caribbean port to have all of them in the same season," Thomas said.
He acknowledged that the traffic situation on land with more and larger ships in port on busy days continues to be a problem. He said there are plans to approach the Public Works Department and seek a Costal Zone Management permit to improve Long Bay Road, Frenchman's Bay Road and Centerline (Estate Thomas) Road.
Also, Thomas said, the fact that some ships will be remaining in port later this season should alleviate some of the late-afternoon traffic between downtown and Havensight. While most ships traditionally leave in the late afternoon, the Navigator of the Seas will depart St. Thomas at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, and soon some megaships will stay in port overnight, he said.
One person inquired about the prospect of developing water-taxi service, long a bone of contention with local taxi associations. "We have a concession agreement with V.I. Taxi that only they are allowed to remove passengers from the ship," Thomas said. But he noted that the contract expires this year and added, "I think it's something that needs to be addressed."
Another person asked about the possibility of St. Thomas becoming a homeport for cruise ships, as San Juan is. "I would never encourage it," Thomas said. "There is no local spending." The economic situation in San Juan cannot be compared to that of the territory, because that city's "economy is not tourism based." he said.
As for the absence of ships calling at St. Croix, Thomas had this to say: "We should not continue to beat a dead horse or continue rehashing the matter about why cruise numbers are down … What we all should be doing is seeking ways to make St. Croix a viable cruise destination once again."
The Ad Club members were served a three-course meal in one of the ship's elegant dining rooms. The waiters bustled about making sure that their experience was relaxing and all their needs were met.
The Navigator of the Seas has 15 decks of many delights. While walking to the dining hall, club members got a view of several bars, stores, restaurants and a small ice cream parlor. There was no official tour, but some members wandered about the ship. One person took a peek at the ship's ice-skating rink and reported that there was a bar there, as well. The vessel also has an in-line skating rink, a basketball court and a teens-only hangout.

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