Sept. 18, 2008 — With the territory already facing a slower winter tourism season thanks to U.S. economic woes and reduced airlift, the news got worse Thursday when the West Indian Co. announced a more than 15 percent drop in cruise ship calls on St. Thomas/St. John during the upcoming winter season.
The number will fall by 90 to 494, down from 584 in 2007-2008. St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce Director Joe Aubain put the drop at about 125,000 passengers.
WICO President Edward Thomas declined to speculate how many fewer passengers would arrive on St. Thomas/St. John thanks to fewer ships making port. He said that across the territory, the number would drop by about 100,000 for the entire year, not just the winter season, because some cruise lines are shifting some of their calls to St. Croix from St. Thomas.
During the 2007-2008 winter season, 1.8 million cruise ship passengers arrived on St. Thomas/St. John.
The most significant reason for the drop centers on the fact that fewer ships are home porting in nearby San Juan, Thomas said.
Only four ships are using San Juan as a home port. The rest are coming from the mainland, following a trend that began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Additionally, Thomas said that cruise lines are extending the European summer cruising season. This means the calls to St. Thomas/St. John start later in the season.
While the St. Thomas business community was still absorbing the bad news about the decline in cruise ship arrivals, Aubain said plans were already under way to expand business in the downtown shopping district.
"We have to become more competitive," he said.
The plan calls for downtown shops to stay open at least one night a week until 7 or 7:30 p.m. rather than closing at 5 p.m. as they do now.
According to Aubain, the plan was originally developed to lure overnight guests downtown after the daytime crush is over. He said more parking becomes available when office workers leave for the day. And traffic issues that plague downtown Charlotte Amalie during the winter season are alleviated at night.
This plan would also afford more shopping time for passengers on cruise ships that don't pull up anchor until after 5 p.m.
Once upon a time, downtown stores stayed open later, but that practice fell by the wayside except for the hugely successful Miracle on Main Street Christmas shopping event. For that one night of the year, stores stay open.
"Miracle on Main Street simply proved that something can be done with a little bit of creativity," Aubain said.
Aubain doesn't think that the bad economy on the mainland will keep people from taking cruises, but said that passengers are already spending less on things like shopping in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
Thomas agreed. He said that many lines mass market to people looking for bargain cruises. Those people tend to spend less on shore activities. This means that merchants have to work harder to bring in customers.
"They have to change their inventory," he said, indicating merchants need to stock cheaper goods to attract the bargain hunters.
In the territory's favor is the fact that 75 percent of the cruise ships leaving from the U.S. mainland call first on St. Thomas before going on to other Caribbean ports.
"We get first crack at their dollar," Thomas said.
After the two or more days at sea it takes to reach St. Thomas from the mainland, Thomas said the passengers have "money burring in their pockets."
Because accommodations and food on board the cruise ships are already paid for, passengers don't have to budget for those expenses once their vacation begins.
When cruise ships call first on St. Maarten, Thomas said St. Thomas retailers see a 35 to 40 percent reduction in sales.
V.I. Ecotours, which does kayak tours of the Mangrove Lagoon, gets half its business from cruise ship passengers. The company cut shifts during the slower fall season, which meant employees earned less. However, owner Sybille Sorrentino said she'd probably hire fewer people than usual to work during the winter season so her employees wouldn't have to take a pay cut.
Howard Gray, dispatcher at the V.I. Taxi Association, was philosophical about the probable drop in business.
"Business comes and goes. Sometimes there's a drop in the cruise ship business but the airport business picks up," he said.
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