Seven scenarios in WICO’s cruise ship schedule for the season starting Oct. 1 could result in ships full of passengers ready to visit the island of St. Thomas being turned away.
During a meeting of WICO’s board of directors, Director of Marine and Cruise Operations Mark Sabino said things such as berth size, Port Authority contracts, and scheduling conflicts create a perfect storm for the possibility of losing tourism revenue.
Port Authority’s dock cannot handle all the Royal Caribbean International ships they are contracted to receive because of limitations on the berth sizes at Crown Bay, which can only handle cruise ships up to 1,045 feet in length, Sabino said. WICO can be called upon to accommodate these contracted ships but sometimes lacks the ability to shift ship traffic. That means the territory would have to turn away a ship, something Sabino said is already being planned for the upcoming year and has been done in the past.
Four of the seven conflicts Sabino discussed are directly related to being oversized for the Crown Bay dock “and of the four oversize conflicts, one we have to release and send the ship away,” Sabino said. Because of how arrivals and departures work, he said, in addition to oversized ships, a Norwegian Cruise Line ship had been sent away in January because it could not navigate the channel as another ship was protruding into it, “creating a navigational hazard.”
“That left the territory with an empty berth,” Sabino said, because there were five ships ready to dock and only four were received.
But this isn’t just a problem that is occurring but one that will continue to occur if not met with change.
“For us at WICO and for the territory, as we go down the road coming, there are more ships coming and very few of them are under 1,100 feet. Everything coming out now is over 1,065 feet and up to 1,100 feet,” Sabino said.
He added that dates for the upcoming year “are already in conflict and the territory may have a situation again where we are left with an empty berth.”
Board Chairman Joseph Boschulte said the island’s popularity is impacting its ability to handle the traffic.
“St. Thomas, as a cruise destination, has reached the point where because of the length and size of the ships, it is starting to impact our capacity,” Boschulte said.
Boschulte said that year after year the calls from cruise lines wanting to dock on the island are down, as are passenger numbers, and this is why additional berthing is needed. St. Thomas “has not adapted to the changing of industry dimensions in terms of size of ships … We need to recognize as a marquee destination that we are no longer in the late ’90s or early 2000s and that competition in the region is tremendous.”
But board member Pash Daswani said it wasn’t just about berth size but also about contracts.
“Royal Caribbean has sent a clear message to the island that, yes, we are under contract with Crown Bay, we are not happy with Crown Bay and hence we are going to bypass you and go to other ports. That message has been loud and clear and if our board does not get that then we are living in la-la land,” Daswani said.
Board Secretary Roosevelt David said he is “pleased the governor has already signed the permit and sent it down to the Legislature but that we have to understand that the hour is getting late,” as he was told some 120 new ships were being built and ports all over the Caribbean are vying to dock them.