June 25, 2003 – For the second time in nine months, Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards has failed to attend a major Caribbean tourism industry conference where she was scheduled to be a participant.
The first was last October's annual Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association conference.
The second was the Caribbean Hotel Association's annual Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference this week in Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic.
Responding to an article in The V.I. Daily News about her absence at Punta Cana, where she was scheduled to participate Tuesday in a panel discussion on airlift, Richards called the "Topp Talk" show on WVWI Radio on Wednesday morning to defend her absence.
Richards said she had not been able to get her travel approved by Government House. All travel must be approved by the governor. She said she stayed in her office until 6:30 p.m. Friday awaiting an answer to the travel request and that she told conference officials that if they did not hear from her, she would not be attending the meeting, which. ran from Sunday through Wednesday.
However, travel was approved for a member of her staff. According to the published report, Rick Carrington, the Tourism Department St. Croix bureau manager, attended the conference.
Richards acknowledged on the talk show that a Tourism representative was at Punta Cana. She did not explain how his travel had been approved, while hers was not. "I must follow the rules I work under," she said, adding: "I will get my report when my Tourism official returns."
Downplaying her absence, Richard said on the broadcast that "my participation wouldn't make or break the conference. It wasn't a keynote speech; I was to participate on a panel." She also said her staff member "wasn't invited to speak on the panel."
Later, in a telephone interview with the Source, Richards said she doesn't know why her travel was not approved and her employee's was. "That's not something I can answer," she said. "I don't sign them" — the travel vouchers. She had no comment as to whether Gov. Charles W. Turnbull considered the conference to be important.
She did say that she was "surprised the issue of cruise lines should have been so dominant at a hotel conference." She said she had been asked to talk about airlift, and that she had no knowledge the cruise lines would have representatives there.
The Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference program posted on the CHA CHIC Web site lists among four workshops on the schedule:
– "By Land or By Sea (or both!)," described as a discussion of what the cruise industry brings to and takes away from land-based tourism in the Caribbean. The schedule notes that this discussion "will be the basis for developing the CHA Cruise Policy."
The other CHIC workshops dealt with:
– Capitalizing on the trend toward direct-to-consumer online marketing and sales.
– Developing a mandate of priority the tourism sector would like to see applied by the public sector.
– Best practices of resource development, including securing public-sector support, attracting foreign and local investment opportunities and improving product branding.
Referring to another V.I. Daily News report, about references at the conference to the pullout of cruise lines from St. Croix last year, Richards said she doesn't know why nobody at the meeting remarked on the recent visit of a ship to St. Croix. "We just had a Royal Caribbean ship visit, and no one commented on that," she said. Asked about allegations in the published report about crime on St. Croix, she said she had not read the newspaper.
Richards said she is planning to attend the annual Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association conference in the fall. In preparation for that gathering, she said, she and her staff will meet "within the next week" with officials of the Port Authority (whose board she chairs by virtue of being Tourism commissioner), The West Indian Co. and the Economic Development Authority. She said that on Tuesday she was attending VIPA meetings.
Richards missed the 2002 F-CCA conference last October in Cancun. There, too, she was to be a panel speaker. She opted to return home from a Tampa meeting she had attended prior to the conference because of the approach toward the territory of Tropical Storm Lili. (See "Richards says Lili led her to skip conference".)
At that week-long F-CCA conference, Richards was scheduled to participate in a panel discussing cruise ship "conversion" programs, which refers to turning cruise visitors into returning overnight hotel guests. She said at the time that the panel could go on without her since there were five other members.
Wednesday' published reports about the CHIC said it was damning of St. Croix. Cruise ship officials — particularly Giora Israel, a Carnival Corp. vice president — "reminded a room full of Caribbean hoteliers that Carnival pulled its ships out of St. Croix more than a year ago because of continued criminal attacks on passengers and crew," according to one account.
In April 2002, Carnival announced it was canceling 52 calls at St. Croix by the Triumph and the Victory for the 2002-03 season. Two other cruise lines followed suit. (See "Of shoes and ships and crime and punishment".) In May 2002, Norwegian Cruise Line announced it was dropping eight scheduled calls to the island. A month later came word that Holland America had canceled plans for its new ship, the Zuiderdam, to call 43 times at St. Croix, from November 2002 through December of 2003. Carnival cited crime as a reason; all three cited lack of demand.
For the 2000-01 season — as calculated from October through June — St. Croix recorded 154 cruise ship calls. For the 2001-02 season, the number slid to about 103, mainly because Holland America dropped the island from its itinerary.
This past winter season, Celebrity Cruises' Constellation was the only major cruise ship scheduled to call regularly at St. Croix, with 21 visits scheduled. However, Celebrity announced last December that it was reducing the visits to 17, making the ship's last call on March 9 instead of continuing into April. Celebrity is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises.
For the 2003 summer season, May 1 through Sept. 30, no ships are scheduled to call regularly at St. Croix. There has been no announcement of whether the Constellation will return for the winter. So far, repeated talks involving cruise lines, the St. Croix hospitality industry and V.I. government officials have failed to entice any ships back.

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