June 27, 2002 – The third shoe dropped into the deep blue waters off the Ann E. Abramson Marine Facility on the Frederiksted waterfront last week.
A Port Authority release announced that the Holland America cruise line had canceled the plans in place for its new ship, the Zuiderdam, to call 43 times at St. Croix, from next Nov. 5 through December of 2003.
That followed announcements by Carnival Cruise Lines in April that it was kissing off St. Croix — canceling 52 calls by the Triumph and the Victory for the coming season — and by Norwegian Cruise Line in May that it was dropping eight scheduled calls to the island.
For the 2000-01 season — as calculated from October through June — St. Croix recorded 154 cruise ship calls. For the 2001-02 season just ending, the number slid to 103, mainly because Holland America dropped the island from its itinerary. (That number may be off by a few calls plus or minus because of unforeseen diversions due to tropical storms, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and other occurrences.)
As of mid-April, the projection for 2002-03 was back up to 119, in large part because Holland America opted to come back to St. Croix, scheduling its brand-new, 1,848-passenger Zuiderdam for 27 calls through next June — plus 16 more in July through December 2003.
And then the shoes began to drop.
– On April 24, Carnival confirmed that it was pulling the Triumph and the Victory from St. Croix, costing the island 52 of those 119 calls plus one in July by the Destiny, and dropping the scheduled visits through next June to 66. The ships have the capacity for 2,766 and 2,758 passengers, respectively (based on stateroom double occupancy, the industry standard). Local economist Rick Moore calculated the economic loss to the island at $34 million.
– On May 16, Edward E. Thomas Sr., chief executive of The West Indian Co., announced at a meeting of the Public Finance Authority that Norwegian Cruise Line had canceled its calls to St. Croix for at least the next two seasons, sending the Norwegian Sky to St. Kitts instead. That cost St. Croix eight visits in January through April 2003, dropping the season total on tap to 58. The Norwegian Sky has a capacity of 2,002 passengers.
– On June 19, Gordon Finch, Port Authority executive director, announced in a release that Holland America had changed its mind, and the Zuiderdam would not be calling at St. Croix in the coming season after all. That reduced the projected total for October through next June by 27, down to 31. And it wiped out what was left of the schedule for the remainder of 2003, including one visit in December 2003 by the Zuiderdam's also-new sister ship, the Oosterdam. Both ships have a capacity of 1,848 passengers.
What's left for the next 18 months
For October through next June, it now looks like a grand total of 33 port calls over 39 weeks for St. Croix — less than one visit per week. If you want to extend the period on through December of 2003, make that a grand total of 33 over 61 weeks — because at the moment, according to the Port Authority calendar, no ships are scheduled to call at St. Croix after next April 25. Just as no ships are scheduled to call between now and next Oct. 28.
The total bookings comprises 1 call in October, 7 calls in November, 10 in December, 4 in January, 4 in February, 5 in March and 2 in April.
Ten of the calls, in October, November and December, are by the Seadream II, a newly refurbished small luxury ship, formerly Seabourn Cruise Line's Sea Goddess. It carries a maximum of 110 passengers and a crew of 89.
All but two of the other 23 calls are by the Constellation, a new ship with a capacity of 1,950 passengers. It just went into service in May and is cruising Mediterranean and Scandinavian waters for the summer before heading to the Caribbean, where it will sail out of San Juan for the winter season.
The Constellation is owned by Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. There have been published reports and statements by public figures that Royal Caribbean is among the cruise companies that have canceled plans to visit St. Croix. This is not so, according to Michael Sheehan in Royal Caribbean's office of corporate communications, which handles public information for Celebrity Cruises as well as its parent company.
The Constellation's seven-night Southern Caribbean itinerary from this coming November through next April includes weekly calls at both St. Thomas and St. Croix, Sheehan confirmed recently. "We have no expectation of changes," he said.
The rumors may be rooted in the fact that Royal Caribbean and Carnival are the two cruise lines that had entered into an agreement with the Port Authority last August to develop Crown Bay on St. Thomas as a major dock and shopping area. In March, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull announced that he was "instructing" VIPA to scuttle that plan and instead work with The West Indian Co. to develop Crown Bay.
The St. Thomas project has turned into a political hot potato, with the VIPA board voting to do the developing itself, WICO making it clear it would rather do the same, business community leaders siding with WICO, and Government House noticeable by its lack of public pronouncement on the matter since March. At the May 30 VIPA board meeting, executive director Gordon Finch and the presiding vice chair, Iver Stridiron, raised the prospect of Carnival and Royal Caribbean still playing a role in the development. The attorney general said a few days later that this mention was merely "a trial balloon."
Finch said at the start of May that construction would be under way at Crown Bay in the fall and that the expanded dock and adjacent commercial development would be in operation "by October 2003." But he also said that "there will be melee all the way up to the construction, and beyond."
There has been speculation that while Carnival cited crime as its reason for sending the Triumph and the Victory from St. Croix, Turnbull's thumbs-down on its involvement in the Crown Bay project may also have been a factor. The idea finds further credence in this month's cancellation by Holland America, which is owned by Carnival Cruise Lines' parent company, Carnival Corp.
The remaining two calls scheduled for St. Croix are by the Aida, on Nov. 19, and the Melody, on April 25. The Aida is a German cruise ship owned by the P&O line that carries up to 1,200 passengers. The Melody, built in 1982 and christened the Atlantic, then refurbished in 1997, is operated by Mediterranean Shipping Cruises and carries up to 1,076 passengers.
Crime and punishment
Last Dec. 27, Carnival's director of port operations wrote to Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards, copied to the governor, the police commissioner and others, citing four reports of "muggings and robberies" of Carnival passengers and crew in the preceding two months. Police Chief Novelle Francis subsequently characterized the reported incidents as "stuff that could have been avoided" and said he was too short-staffed to be able to beef up patrols in high-traffic areas when cruise ships are in port.
The Carnival official wrote again on Feb. 20 citing an "additional mugging and robbery incident since our meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 23 … to discuss initiatives being implemented to address this serious issue." And he wrote a third time on April 16, citing two further assault and robbery incidents on April 10.
On May 1, a week after Carnival announced its pullout, Police Commissioner Franz Christian issued a release stating that his department "is committed to providing a safe haven for Carnival Cruise Lines and the entire cruise industry and has taken a number of steps to ensure high police visibility, prevention of incidents, improved response times and speedy apprehension of cases of crimes perpetrated against visitors."
On Monday, Government House put out a release announcing that the Police Department would be assign
ing six officers to patrol "hot spots" in the territory "that are known to have a history of criminal acts against tourists." It said the officers, in addition to their patrol and rapid response duties, would "educate the tourist and naval personnel about what areas should be avoided to prevent criminal acts."
Richards was quoted in the release as saying the initiative was "the re-establishment of our Tourist Oriented Policing (TOP) program."
On Tuesday, in Territorial Court on St. Croix, Judge Edgar Ross sentenced a 19-year-old man accused of robbing a couple at gunpoint on Sandy Point Beach last Feb. 20. The couple were Carnival Triumph passengers. Ross sentenced Jason Williams, 19, to one year in jail less four months' time served.
On the recommendation of the Attorney General's office, Ross accepted a plea bargain, dropping the robbery charge and sentencing Williams on admitted weapons charges.
Last July, Stridiron announced "Project Exile," a task force approach to prosecuting gun-related crime that meant sending convicted criminals off island to serve time. "We intend to be tough as nails on persons who commit gun crimes," he said at the time.
On Wednesday, Stridiron said the prosecution could not make a case on the robbery charges because the victims refused to press charges or to return to the territory for the trial. He said Williams pleaded guilty to the gun charges rather than face trial.
However, the attorney general added, the gun charges "carry a maximum sentence of five years, and we argued for the maximum sentence," but the judge gave him a year.
When tourists are the victims of crime, "it is extremely difficult to get people to testify," Stridiron said. "We pay their way down here and put them up, but most of the time the victims don't want to return." Still, he added, so many times even when witnesses or victims live in the territory, "people just don't want to testify."
Sen. Emmett Hansen introduced legislation early in the 24th Legislature to toughen penalties for gun-related crimes, only to see it vetoed last summer by the governor. He reintroduced a revised measure which was signed into law at the start of this year.
On Wednesday, commenting on the plea-bargaining and sentencing of Williams, Hansen said: "I've noticed a marked lack of enforcement regarding the Gun Control Act and, as a matter of fact, all of our crime laws. We have enough federal and local legislation on the books to make our streets safer, but if our Attorney General's Office keeps requesting dismissals on these felony cases, then we will never have safe streets, schools or neighborhoods."
Hansen said his staff is compiling statistics on felony cases and their disposition. "I'm afraid that what we'll find will definitely not inspire any confidence in our judicial system," he said. "Further, had the Gun Control Act not been vetoed last summer, perhaps this summer we wouldn't have a tourist-less economy … The cruise ship people have targeted crime as the main deterrent for not coming to our island. Do you think that giving that young man a slap on the wrist is going to show that we're serious? I doubt it."
Dollars and sense
Since 1999, the Port Authority has waived port fees for any cruise ships calling at St. Croix that also call at St. Thomas. Thus, the economic impact of ships' visits to St. Croix lies in the onshore expenditures of the passengers and crew.
Cruise industry officials have said that while the price is right, they are concerned first and foremost with taking their passengers to islands where they will have a memorable, positive experience. And what they have found in the cast of St. Croix is that, crime concerns aside, there just is not much for visitors to do.
In the spring of 2000, the Port Authority completed a $3.6 million upgrade of the Ann E. Abramson Marine Facility — the new name for the Frederiksted pier. The project involved increasing the berthing capacity to accommodate Eagle-class vessels, the largest cruise ships in the world.
The territory's Long Term Operating Agreement with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association and its 13 member lines, signed into effect by the governor last fall, includes among its provisions these items:
– Summer traffic to St. Croix would increase 15 percent annually, with an effort to achieve a 25 percent increase, starting from 2001. And the government would within six months of signing the agreement initiate a plan to market St. Croix "to grow the demand" for more cruise ship calls.
– The cruise lines would target three to four calls per week to St. Croix during the winter.
– The Tourism Department would host the visit of cruise line sales and marketing executives to St. Croix to provide input toward "enhanced marketing of the destination, developing a list of passenger activities and events, and required infrastructure improvements."
The first two points, cruise industry officials have repeatedly said, were contingent upon the third, which had yet to occur.
Last Friday, Turnbull, Richards (who as Tourism commissioner chairs the VIPA board), Finch, and other VIPA board members were in Miami to meet with representatives of Carnival Cruise Lines and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. A Port Authority release said Finch and several board members hoped to meet as well with Royal Caribbean officials.
Media efforts through Wednesday to obtain information on the meetings were unsuccessful. On Thursday morning, the Tourism Department circulated a notice of a press conference to be held Thursday afternoon on St. Croix.
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