The Bryan administration announced that the Public Finance Authority had authorized $17 million to dredge the Port of Charlotte Amalie. Two reasons were given for the dredging operation.
First, WICO reported that 21 Oasis-class cruise ships in one year had to be turned away, representing a significant loss of revenue. Each Oasis-class ship carries more than 6,500 passengers and 2,200 crew. The passenger head tax, wharfage fee, and average tourist spending of $165 represent a significant infusion of cash into the St. Thomas economy. Main Street merchants and the Chamber of Commerce welcomed the plan.
Second, WICO authorities noted that Charlotte Amalie Harbor was last dredged 50 years ago. Sedimentation and large storms have added deposits and moved sand over the years, reducing the depth of the harbour. The shallower turning channel in the harbor presented a risk that a large vessel could run aground. A large ship blockading the port would be economically costly, forcing other ships to reroute, triggering insurance claims and damaging WICO’s reputation.
Many pointed out that the $17 million expenditure was undesirable. Some have mentioned that because the cruise ship industry has changed over the years with tourists spending less and less ashore which means the amount of gross revenue that would have to be earned to pay for dredging would not be available within a reasonably short time. Therefore, $17 million would be better spent on other pressing priorities.
After weighing the two arguments, dredging for safety of navigation is a strong argument. Dredging a busy port or a heavily trafficked waterway can be considered an essential maintenance activity, especially after 50 years. The price seems a little high, but there is hope that federal funds can be sought to reimburse the local government. The second argument about the ability to attract more Oasis-class ships is not as strong and unconvincing.
What seems to be the thinking is that the dredging is the first phase of a larger project to build a dock that can accommodate two additional Oasis-class berths. The most important goal is to have a total of four Oasis class berths. A Memorandum of Understanding between Government VI and Royal Caribbean was signed in the fall of 2021 to explore dredging and creating accommodations for more Oasis class and possibly the new Icon class of ships in St. Thomas and Frederiksted, St.Croix.
The reasoning is that the cruise industry is moving towards mega-ships as the future of cruising. That host communities like the Virgin Islands must enter an arms race with other island destinations to build berths that can accommodate these mega-ships. Cruise ship operators hint to destination communities that if you don’t have an Oasis-class berth, you won’t be a preferred port of call. St. Kitts and Nevis has four berths, the most in the Caribbean, followed by Bahamas, St. Thomas, VI and St. Maarten. Historically, St. Thomas, VI has ranked fourth on the list of the most popular Caribbean cruise destinations after the Bahamas, Cozumel, Mexico and George Town, Grand Cayman. Yet St. Maarten and St. Kitts, competing destinations in the Eastern Caribbean, are growing rapidly.
The question for the VI community is can we assess what type of tourism is good for us? Can we consider what is sustainable tourism and what is not? What can we do to diversify and enhance our tourist product? How best to distribute the benefits of tourism and minimize the negative effects?
With this in mind, Phase 2 of the Bryan administration’s plan to build a pier in the center of Charlotte Amalie Harbor across from Long Bay requires a thorough assessment. No serious study of economic or environmental impact seems to be in the back of the minds of the authorities. It looks like building more Oasis-class berths (Long Bay Landing Project) seems like full steam ahead, as “we need to stay competitive on the number of Oasis berths, period.”
Here are some points that should be studied and discussed openly in the community.
First of all, a pier in the middle of the port will irreparably spoil the beauty of the natural basin. Charlotte Amalie is one of the five most beautiful ports in the Caribbean. Will building two Oasis-class berths yield ‘windfall from heaven’ as per capita spending stagnates lower for cruise tourists and offsets a port forever changed?
Second, having three to four Oasis-class ships in port at the same time will most likely cause serious congestion issues that will degrade the experience of visiting tourists and damage our overall reputation as a tourist destination.
Imagine 18,000 to 24,000 tourists trying to get to St. Thomas’ most popular attractions – Magens Bay, Coki Point, Sapphire Beach, Red Hook area for parasailing, kayaking and jet ski boat tours; and the Mountain Top and Main Street shopping district.
A cautious approach before signing on to build a $110 million pier because Royal Caribbean told you to would be to determine the physical and social carrying capacity of major attractions. For example, Magens Bay is our first seaside attraction. We should take digital aerial photographs of the beach and overlay 2 x 2 meter grids from 25 meters above the high tide mark to 100 meters in the water to determine maximum capacity (one person can fit in each grid).
Then we can assess social carrying capacity by calculating density per square meter and polling people on ‘crowded days’ and ’empty days’ to arrive at an interpolation of what people consider a ‘comfortable distance’ .
Then you would have to hire a transport engineer and monitor traffic with detection strips on the access road down from Louisenhoj Castle. The objective would be to determine the maximum number of vehicles that can use this main access road in one hour without being blocked and backed up. When large events on Magens Bay, such as the King of the Wing competition, draw around 2,000 people, traffic concentrates on Magens Junction and Flamboyant Hotel. Imagine what the traffic will be like when you have 24,000 visitors and 6,000 want to go to fabulous Magens Bay? Imagine the experience at Coki Point, Coral World – an attraction with even worse access and parking than Magens Bay.
Third, as a very small economy dependent on tourism, we should try to maximize tourism spending, not the number of tourist arrivals.
Instead of welcoming 18,000 to 24,000 visitors in a single day in a place with a population of 55,000 and a narrow and inadequate road network, we should focus on attracting fewer tourists, but who spend a lot. For spendthrift tourists, we must ensure a safe, clean and well-maintained environment and plenty of fascinating and exciting attractions and make them rave about their experiences with other spendthrifts.
We should focus on maximizing total tourism spending, not the number of visitors. We should focus on environmental sustainability and quality of tourist experience for repeat customers and word of mouth referrals. We need to honestly and thoroughly assess and evaluate what meaning means to us as a people and not just vested interests in this legacy industry. We have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the proposals. We should be in control of our tourism development strategy, not Royal Caribbean.
— Mark Wenner, St. Thomas, is an economist.