Drop in cruise ship calls to St. Thomas could cost business community millions


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ST. THOMAS - Fewer cruise ships could mean fewer dollars in the bank for local businesses in the coming tourism season.

Though the V.I. Port Authority has yet to release the number of cruise ship calls expected during the 2014-2015 cruise ship season, the West Indian Co. reported last week that they are expecting a three-percent drop in the number of ships visiting its dock.

Since last week, WICO has booked three more calls for the season, reducing the 13-ship difference between this season and next to a 10-ship difference, according to WICO President and CEO Joseph Boschulte.

Instead of seeing 416 ships dock at WICO, as it did in 2013-2014, this upcoming year the dock expects 406 port calls.

The drop in ship calls is expected to equate to a loss of about 31,000 visitors, Boschulte said.

Each passenger is estimated to spend about $230 during their time on-island, Boschulte said, which equates to about $7.1 million in tourist spending lost to the territory.

For local businesses, that means a painful loss of income.

"In the last three or four years, the business already has declined. Every one knows that," said Pash Daswani, owner of Lucky Jewelers on Main Street. "Our neighboring islands are gearing up much better and faster than us."

Daswani, who recently went on a cruise himself, saw that competing islands have a greater cruise ship capacity and also a more sophisticated layout to allow for easy pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

While Daswani feels that local tourism officials are making efforts to bring the territory up to speed with competition, the quicker it happens, the better, he said.

"That is a lot of money," he said of the forecasted loss in ships and passengers at the WICO dock.

Aside from merchants selling goods, a lot of the companies that thrive on offering services to the passengers also hope that the territory can maintain, if not boost, the steady stream of cruise ships that pass through the territory's ports, most of them through those on St. Thomas, since they rely greatly on their dollars.

"We have contracts with some of the cruise lines," said Christy Walker, manager at the Tree Limin' Extreme zipline facilities on the north side of St. Thomas. "During the slow season, it's really beneficial."

During the slow season, Tree Limin' Extreme also reaches out to hotel guests and locals, though it is not the same as the flux of tourists they see from the cruise ships.

"During the summer, we kind of reach out," Walker said.

The V.I. Department of Tourism admitted concern about the decrease in ships and passengers, though the effect should not be detrimental, according to Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty. The territory still is better positioned than it was several years ago, she said.

However, the department is beginning a campaign this summer to encourage businesses to strategize ways that they can increase the amount of money spent per visitor and ways to appeal to more overnight visitors.

The islands could do well to attract more non-cruise ship visitors, who generally spend more money during their stay because they need more amenities, including a place to stay.

The average visitor spends about 4.2 nights in the territory, Nicholson-Doty said, noting that the territory welcomes about 1.8 million cruise ship visitors and about 800,000 visitors annually.

The Tourism Department recently has been working with local businesses to increase the amount of discount certificates given to tourists because they typically spend two to three times what the certificate actually is worth, Nicholson-Doty said.

One of the entities that has been working with the department to make the territory more attractive to visitors is the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.

"The opportunities, the critical opportunities before us are the capital projects related to the revitalization of Charlotte Amalie," said Sebastiano Paiewonsky Cassinelli, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.

The projects that will help to keep St. Thomas relevant in the Caribbean region will be renovations to Main Street, the waterfront, the harbor and the nearby side streets, Cassinelli said, noting that such renovations already are being planned and executed.

On Main Street - one of the streets most heavily overrun with tourists on St. Thomas - businesses rely on cruise ship guests for about 60 to 70 percent of their revenue, according to Cassinelli. The remaining 30 to 40 percent of business comes from hotel guests, he said.

"If we can execute those projects, that will help Charlotte Amalie restore its competitive advantage," he said. "It will improve the quality of life. It will have a stimulative effect."

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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