Nov. 2, 2005 — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will not grant a full waiver exempting V.I. charter boats from federal regulations that pose a threat to the local boating industry.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen requested the waiver last month after the new regulation went into effect Oct. 4.
Instead, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Pamela J. Turner stated U.S. Customs and Border Patrol will be pushing for a slight amendment to the current rule that vessels carrying paying customers must file a 24-hour notice of arrival and departure that includes a list of all passengers and crew, at a Homeland Security Web site before leaving or entering a U.S. port.
This time limit applies specifically to term charter boats — those that take guests out overnight or longer. Day charter boats and passenger ferries must file both their departure and arrival notifications at the same time, but it must be within 15 minutes of departure from a U.S. port.
Once the amendment is formalized, Turner said, term charter boat operators will be able to transmit their lists no later than 60 minutes prior to departure.
A press release from Christensen's office Wednesday said she recently received a letter from Turner, stating that Customs now has discretion to waive the 24-hour requirement for vessels taking quick trips. Locally, this applies to day charter boats taking passengers from the territory to the British Virgin Islands, and back.
While Turner wrote that Customs did recognize "a need to accommodate the industry you represent," she also said Customs and Border Patrol needs all the information necessary to accomplish its primary mission — to protect the U.S. from anything which poses a threat to national security.
Christensen said she will continue to press for a full waiver, and is considering any and all options which may get that accomplished — including introducing legislation. This will take time, Christensen said, but in the interim, a Homeland Security representative will be sent to the territory to meet with individuals from the territory's charter yacht industry.
In the meantime those affected are taking matters into their own hands, and will discuss the situation at a public meeting to be held at 6 p.m Thursday at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage. "We're all in this together," Judi Nagelberg, president of V.I. Meetings and Incentives and an organizer of the meeting, said Wednesday. "Because if we don't get these rules relaxed, people are not going to come to the V.I. We market the ease of traveling here — that's how we sell the destination. Without that, it's going to be hard to get people to visit."
Hollis Jenkins, owner of New Horizon Sailing on St. Thomas, said it takes about four hours during the day for her company to submit the required information — when the Internet is working. Jenkins said it is even more difficult for boat owners who actually live on their boats and don't have immediate access to a computer. "The federal government further expects us all to be computer literate. But the Web site is complicated, and the island doesn't always have the same technology that one sees on the mainland," Jenkins said. "So it really doesn't make things travel-wise any easier for usor for the customer."
Nagelberg said since the regulations also impose heavy penalties on boat owners, many businesses will not be able to continue to provide charter boat services, further devastating the boating industry. "It's really an impossible feat for the boating community to comply with the regulations," she said. "The rules don't allow for mistakes, and because of that, we've gotten a lot of calls from businesses saying they will not be renewing their permits to go to the BVI."
Sen. Liston Davis said boats pulling out of the U.S.V.I. has been the trend since 1993, when the U.S. Coast Guard imposed other regulations which stipulated charter boats carrying more than six passengers have to be inspected and licensed by the Coast Guard. The additional requirements for Coast Guard licensing are costly, Davis said.
This raised the operating costs for boat owners considerably, Davis said, causing many to flee to the BVI where regulations are far more lax.
"Prior to this rule," Davis said, "we had the largest charter boat industry in the Caribbean, which was contributing some $80 million annually to the territory."
Because of this, Davis added the implementation of the current Homeland Security regulations will surely spell "death" for what's left of the industry, as well as have a considerable effect on the territory's economy. Davis said he sent a letter explaining these circumstances to Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security Secretary, and plans to "pop in" to share his concerns at Thursday's meeting at the Holiday Inn.
According to Beverly Nicholson, director of the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association, representatives from Customs and Border Patrol, the V.I. Tourism Department, and Christensen's office will also be attending the meeting. Christensen will not be there.
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