St. Thomas is looking at a good year in terms of the number of new ships that will call at the port, West Indian Co. president Edward E. Thomas said Thursday in an address to participants of a two-day workshop on the island for cruise line professionals.
As the featured speaker, he presented an overview of the cruise industry in the territory and his forecast for seasons to come.
Thomas said at least eight new ships are to begin calling at St. Thomas, beginning with the Ocean Princess on Feb. 25. The Disney Magic is to make its first call Aug. 16 and the Explorer of the Seas, the second massive Eagle Class vessel to go into service, on Nov. 1.
Beginning in November 2000, based on the current schedule, Thomas said, the island will regularly see upwards of 8,000 cruise passengers on some days. This means, he added, that "we anticipate having 8,000 passengers at any given time wanting somewhere to go."
He acknowledged the potential for such a volume of passengers to cause a traffic nightmare on the already congested island but told the cruise industry representatives that plans are in place to ease the flow. There will be some traffic pattern changes in the WICO complex, he said, and the company intends "to widen the finger pier to accommodate both pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the vicinity of the area where the huge Eagle-class ships will dock."
While the traffic congestion in and out of the cruise port resulting from this influx of cruise passengers is being addressed, Thomas said, the V.I. government must begin to address the tie-ups between Havensight and downtown.
"The slow pace of the vehicular traffic movement is of primary concern to the destination," he said, "and that is why a recent highway conference offered suggestions of water taxis, staggered work hours and out-of-town parking to ease the rush hour traffic backup."
He urged the cruise executives to keep their ships in port after dark, noting a recent change in the law allows ships calling at St. Thomas to open their casinos after 6 p.m. while still in port. He termed this "a major incentive on the part of the government" and said it should encourage passengers to stay ashore longer before going back to the ship.
Thomas said ships en route to nearby destinations can easily sail later, and enabling passengers to return to the ship in the early evening would ease the current downtown-to-Havensight traffic congestion between 4 and 5 p.m.
The WICO executive also said the time has come to expand the Crown Bay dock facility to accommodate the overflow from the Havensight docks.
"WICO and the V.I. Port Authority signed a memorandum of understanding this week with a Florida firm for it to perform a simulation study to determine the maximum extent by which Crown Bay can be developed to handle the larger mega-class vessels now and in the future," he said.
He said he would like to see the Crown Bay north and south docks both expanded to 900 feet so they can serve ships that now anchor in the St. Thomas inner harbor because the WICO dock is already full.
In an interview after his presentation, Thomas said he and acting Tourism Commissioner Monique Sibilly-Hodge, who by virtue of that office is also acting Port Authority chair, discussed the simulation study. Ongoing development of the cruise port infrastructure is a major selling point in convincing cruise lines to continue calling on the island and for the Virgin Islands to retain its status as a premier tourist destination, he said.
Asked how any needed expansion would be funded, Thomas did not rule out a joint venture between WICO and the Port Authority.
"Something has to be done," he said, "and as chairman of the board of WICO, I will be pushing for that to happen."