V.I. puts on a show for cruise industry Eight V.I. senators take Miami junket

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V.I. government officials were in Miami this week, showcasing the territory as a prime destination for cruise ships at the annual Cruise Shipping Miami conference, formerly known as Seatrade.

V.I. Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty said the territory hosted a 7:30 a.m. breakfast presentation and more than 20 cruise executives showed up, representing at least seven major cruise lines.

"They indicated that it was the best presentation of any destination they had been to," she said.

The V.I. government discussed port development plans, dredging projects, infrastructure improvements and new tourist attractions and activities in both districts, according to Nicholson-Doty.

"We certainly are maintaining our positioning as a port of call," she said.

The planned dredging of Gallows Bay, St. Croix, to allow small cruise ships to come into Christiansted piqued the interest of many of the small, luxury cruise lines, she said.

V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe said it is clear that the U.S. Virgin Islands is maintaining its market share while many newcomers are trying to attract cruise lines to their ports.

"They're kind of giving away the shop to get boats to come," he said.

Dowe said cruise executives were especially interested in dredging projects and infrastructure improvements - namely reducing traffic congestion in St. Thomas.

"You can't have a good experience when you have to go back to your boat three hours early," Dowe said. "You're rushing, leaving town and shopping to try and make it back. We're giving up too much on that end."

Dowe said the territory's officials presented a united front at all meetings. The Port Authority, the West Indian Co. and the central government met with executives as a group.

"They are starting to realize they're not able to pit us against each other anymore," he said.

WICO President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boschulte said Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s presence at the convention and in the meetings sent a strong message that the territory is fully committed to working with the cruise industry.

Boschulte said he gave an update about the new pier his agency wants to build on the north side of Yacht Haven Grande.

WICO anticipates filing a V.I. Coastal Zone Management permit application for the project in April, he said.

Conversations with cruise lines about funding the pier's construction went well, although no agreements have been reached yet, Boschulte said.

"St. Thomas remains a Mecca destination, and continues to be an anchor on many tours of the Caribbean," Boschulte said. "Which helps to support the demand that we're receiving for the pier."

The pier would add two berths to the St. Thomas Harbor, making the port able to take seven ships between WICO and the Port Authority facility in Crown Bay.

Dowe said the dredging planned for Crown Bay will allow for the largest ships to berth on both sides of the pier. Currently, only the west side is deep enough for the mega-ships.

Dowe and Boschulte said the territory's competitors in the marketplace are racing to improve and expand their ports, and the Virgin Islands must keep up, or it will fall behind.

St. Maarten, the territory's primary competitor, is building two more piers, Dowe said.

"That would give St. Maarten eight or nine berths, we only have five berths," he said.

St. Kitts is in the process of building a second pier that will take two of the largest ships, and the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are expanding their port facilities.

"The competition around us is definitely trying to grow their cruise business," Boschulte said. "I think everyone's trying to take advantage of the growth in the industry right now. We're at the top of the pack, but we can't be complacent because we will fall back if we don't continue to grow."

Several announcements were made for new ships to come online in the next few years.

"The industry, they still have about 14 new ships coming off in 2014-2015," Boschulte said.

In particular, Norwegian announced that it is building two new ships for the 2016-2017 season, he said. The ships - the Escape and the Bliss - will be even larger than the two new ones that came out this year, the Breakaway and the Getaway.

These larger ships are the reason the territory must stay on track with dredging and infrastructure improvements, Boschulte said.

The three-day convention is organized by Cruise Lines International Association and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi. Eight V.I. legislators attended the annual Cruise Shipping Miami convention this week.

Senators Alicia Hansen, Kenneth Gittens, Diane Capehart, Craig Barshinger, Tregenza Roach, Clarence Payne III, Janette Milling Young and Myron Jackson all traveled for the conference.

The travel was approved by Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone, who did not attend the conference.

Malone said Friday that with the exception of Young, Hansen and Barshinger, the majority of the group are freshman senators who will learn a lot by attending the convention.

"You need to see it to understand as policymakers, to meet the people that impact us, and they need to meet us, those that make decisions that affect them," Malone said.

He said the Senate ends up reacting to events and could stand to focus more on preventing crisis.

"I thought it was good, and I encouraged them to attend," Malone said.

Under the Senate's revised travel policies - put in place after a joint federal and local audit found major abuses of the old cash advance system - senators must get approval for travel well in advance.

"The policy is if they have money in their budget to travel we approve it," Malone said.

Senators have one week to submit their travel report upon return to the territory, he said.

Additionally, the $75 per diem - which covers food and transportation costs - is not paid to the senators until they return, Malone said.

The V.I. Legislature pays the hotel and airlines directly, he said.

"We pay for the hotel, plane, so that the senator doesn't get money in their hand," he said.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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