Port Authority riles tour operators with marine tariff rate hikes

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ST. THOMAS - Local marine tour operators are fearful that imminent marine tariff rate increases are a sign of more increases to come.

The V.I. Port Authority met with irate tour operators last week to fill them in on tariff rate increases, including jumps in ship dues and wharfage fees, that were slated to go into effect the first of this month but were postponed until next week, April 23.

"We wanted to make sure that the public understood," said Port Authority spokeswoman Monifa Marrero.

Some vessel operators were confused, Marrero said, and are under the impression that the increases will affect vessels traveling within the territory, and that it will apply only to ferry operators. However, the increases will affect vessels traveling into and out of the territory and apply to all vessels that are conducting commercial business.

The Port Authority is raising the ship dues from 85 cents to $2, and it is raising inbound and outbound wharfage fees from $1 to $3 per passenger for all commercial vessels using Port Authority facilities on their way to or from waters outside of the territory.

Under the ship-dues collections, the Port Authority collects about $170,000 annually, according to the Port Authority. The new rate is expected to bring in $400,000 a year, Marrero said.

Wharfage fees currently bring in $375,000 a year, but once the increase goes into effect, the Port Authority anticipates bringing in $1,125,000 a year, Marrero said.

Operators of ferries and charters based in the territory are concerned that the hike in expenses will take a toll on their businesses, or put them out of business. They likely will have to pass on the increase in cost of operation to their customers.

"Pretty soon they're going to do no charters because it's getting so expensive," said Bill DeFusco, owner of Simple Pleasures Charter and Tours based on St. Thomas.

Some marine tour operators said that the fees that recently have been piling up will put the territory at a disadvantage in terms of an affordable tourism destination, as the fees eventually will fall on the consumer.

"It's just another nail in St. Thomas's coffin," said Martyn Crawford, co-owner of Top Sails, a company that runs multiple charter operations out of St. Thomas.

Crawford is concerned not only about the marine tariff rate increases but also about a $5 passenger tariff that the Port Authority's board approved last year. That tariff has been put on hold "indefinitely," Marrero said, and the Port Authority does not expect it will go into effect within the year.

The marine tariff on hold would be applied to all passengers arriving at the Port Authority's Crown Bay Marina and would affect all commercial vessels, including cruise ships.

The Port Authority currently is in discussions with cruise line officials on how best to enact the tariff, Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe said.

"It has not yet been instituted," Dowe said, noting that tour operators have been especially concerned about the new tariff.

Dowe said he could not address whether new tariffs or changes to tariffs might arise in the future because he answers to the Port Authority board, he said.

"I can't tell you what they're going to do," he said.

Charter and ferry operators also have had to deal with increasing rates in the British Virgin Islands.

In August, the British Virgin Islands Ports Authority increased the departure tax for all persons leaving the BVI, whether returning to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or elsewhere.

The new tax schedule reflected a $10 fee for BVI residents - including individuals carrying a BVI passport or Belonger's Card who live outside the BVI - and $15 for all other visitors. Formerly, the tax was $5 per person, resident or non-resident.

In the meantime, the U.S. Virgin Islands' Port Authority is defending its increases, noting that the funds will go toward improving dilapidated marine facilities on both St. Thomas and St. John.

"Our facilities will not deteriorate any further," Dowe said.

The Port Authority also insists that the increases are necessary and are long overdue. The Port Authority has not increased its ship dues in 20 years or its wharfage fees in 18 years, according to Marrero.

However, ferry and charter operators said that the cruise lines should contribute more to helping restore such facilities.

"I think tour operators are going to come up with creative ways to not use the Port Authority marinas," said Kelly Kiernan, who is on Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s Marine Economic Development Council.

Kiernan, who intends to bring up the increases at the council's next meeting, expects that the Port Authority will continue to increase marine tariff rates in the near future.

"It's going to fall on our tour operators," she said.

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

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