For more than an hour at their monthly meeting Friday, members of the Magens Bay Authority Board batted around a loose-knit proposal from principals of Cruise Ship Excursions tour company for at least one cruise line to set up an exclusive zone on the beach between sheds 3 and 4 – roughly in the middle of the nearly mile-long stretch of sand – in expectation of a Disney ship returning as early as Nov. 15.
Heretofore, shore excursions, taxis and local safari buses were not permitted to drop passengers off beyond “the bridge” over the mangrove inlet, to the left of the park entrance. In fact, they were not allowed to drive or park beyond the sensitive mangrove swamp that the bridge crosses.
An exception was made after the 2017 hurricanes that destroyed the bathhouse closest to the gatehouse and seriously damaged the concession building at the entrance to the park, the area which had traditionally been the drop-off point for cruise ship passengers. For months after the park reopened, cruise ship passengers were dropped in roughly the same area, at the other end of the beach that the tour operators are seeking to cordon off, where a makeshift bar had been set up to sell drinks. However, the entire area and bar were open to all comers.
What has been proposed by tour operators Billie and Martyn Crawford and Judy Reeve, who were all in attendance at Friday’s Zoom meeting, is that every other Wednesday Disney Cruise Line passengers would be allowed to congregate strictly among themselves on beach lounges set up in advance of their arrival, somewhere between shed 3 and shed 4, with no social distancing requirements. Attendants from either the cruise ship or the tour company would be assigned to guide locals and others away from the Disney designated area.
“The cruise line wants to keep people as far away from the guests as possible,” said Martyn Crawford.
The cruise line’s requirement also includes setting up a portable toilet – complete with air-conditioning and a fireplace – for the exclusive use of Disney passengers. This, too, the operators said, would be off-limits to anyone but the ship’s passengers.
The Crawford’s said the cruise line was adamant that the passengers will not use Magens Bay bathroom facilities.
A temporary concession would also be placed in the area where the guests could buy drinks “only,” Billie Crawford said. “Water and canned sodas and beer, no mixed drinks.”
When asked by more than one board member about passengers who might want to stray from the designated area, Billie Crawford said, “They [the cruise line] recommend they stay within the bubble.”
But, Martyn Crawford admitted no one can stop them from going wherever they want, unlike a cruise ship he mentioned in Naples, where a passenger wandered off and was not allowed back on board.
In fact, he said, European cruisers are not allowed to disembark unless they are signed up for a shore tour, while in the Virgin Islands passengers are free to come and go at will.
However, as there are no cruise ships lining the shores of the Virgin Islands right now, the meeting was marked by more questions than answers, and the proposal, which had not been put in writing, was more theoretical than actual.
With the uncertainty of a worldwide pandemic still casting doubt about the future of tourism across the globe, the excursion operators lacked clarity about such things as how many passengers and chairs could be expected to land on the beach on the Wednesdays in question. Billie Crawford guessed at maybe half the usual number, which she said would be 75 to 100 people from the Disney line.
Another question that was raised by at least two board members, with two different answers between the beginning of the meeting and the end, was if operators were looking to create a similar scenario for other lines when and if they return.
The first answer, from Martyn Crawford, seemed to be yes. He and Billie both suggested that if this worked for Disney, it might be a good idea for other cruise lines when they returned – minus the beach lounge chairs that will be rented from the local concessionaires, but with the same private zone. They could not say if other lines would want the private potty, which belongs to the excursion company. The pair went as far as describing how the rotation would work, should other cruise lines desire the same amenities on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday – typically the heaviest port days for St. Thomas.
By the second half of the meeting, the operators had moved away from suggestions about additional cruise lines and focused solely on the Disney proposal that they said would only be every other Wednesday for three-and-a-half hours.
When asked what they would be making from the tour compared to the $5 a head fee Magens had to gain from such an agreement, Reeve said that information was proprietary. She suggested the cruise line would charge $59 a person for the excursion, out of which would be paid the chair rental, transportation costs and tour company fee.
Since COVID-19 abruptly halted cruise ship activity across the globe, Magens Bay has been hard hit financially. While the $375 to $500 two days a month projected to be garnered from the Disney deal for an exclusive area on Magens beach is a drop in the bucket of the park’s $100,000 plus a month operating costs, the board pursued what else might be in it for the park. The beach chair concession would make money from the chair rental; 10 percent of which is paid to Magens. Beyond that, little else would be realized by the deal which does not align, according to at least one board member, with the park’s benefactor wealthy industrialist and amateur arborist, Arthur Fairchild’s intent.
Board secretary Elliot “Mac” Davis expressed concern about the entire proposal. “If you open the door,” Davis said, “there will be more to come.”
He also bristled at the notion that local Virgin Islanders and residents would be discouraged from approaching or even passing through the cruise passenger designated area.
“It is antithetical to the purpose of Magens Bay,” he said.
In his 1943 deed of conveyance, Fairchild stipulated that Magens Bay should be “Maintained as a public park [with its natural beauty preserved] for use by the people of the Virgin Islands in perpetuity without discrimination of any kind as to race, creed, color or national origin.”
The board tabled any further action or consideration until the tour operators were able to provide a more clear-cut, formal proposal that addressed the many questions posed by board members at Friday’s meeting.
All board members were in attendance Friday including, chairwoman Katina Coulianos, Davis, secretary, treasurer Cecile deJongh and directors Dale Berry, Robert Moron and Barbara Petersen. Magens Bay manager Hubert Braumant was also in attendance.