Recently there was a series of public meetings held by the members of the V.I. Cruise Ship Task Force on all three islands. I must commend these members for inviting the public, including myself, to make our concerns known to the members before the end of the month when the draft plan is due for agreement by the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association and the government of the Virgin Islands. I do, however, wonder if it is possible to delay the signing of the contract until a new administration is in place to add their comments for the next five years.
Each island had there own thoughts on how we should continue our relationship with the 12 major cruise lines industry groups during the last weeks' hearings. St. Croix's concerns were on how a measurable increase in arrivals did not occur during the last term of the agreement. They had made great strides in improving the capital projects for attracting these passengers without seeing the increases in guests. Because of crime, the cruise lines did have concerns about the destination. The testifiers stressed the need to keep their island clean and beautified and to keep and use a strong marketing plan. On St. John they focused on the importance of completing capital projects. Not unlike St. Croix, cleanliness and rest areas were a concern to St. Johnians. At the St. Thomas hearing inferior infrastructure, increased homeland security costs, traffic congestion and the increasing sales of on board cruise ship marketing and sales deeply affected the margins of small businesses throughout the territory.
The head tax issue was issue for the St. Thomas hearing and who should pay for it. Presently, a per passenger head tax of a $7.50 rate is in place to relieve the many burdens caused by more than a million people that pass through our island home. Of this amount, $ 3.50 is used by the West Indian Company for dockage fees and $ 4 is for the V.I. Port Authority. More than ten million dollars has been used to upgrade the W.I.CO dock and work on security and other improvements for the port. This amount has not increased in about ten years from the previous agreement. Other island destinations charge from a high of about $15 to zero per passenger, some islands reduce this tax according to the volume of visitors. Some members of the task force and testifiers expressed a need to increase the head tax. Michelle Paige, the president of the F.C.C.A., wondered what the present head tax is be used for by the V.I. Government to relieving congestion concerns and was against a tax increase. A question was posed by a member of the task force to the testifiers: would you prefer to pass the above-mentioned costs to the local residents or to the industry? Some favored this while some thought it was unwise.
I believe that I have a series of solutions for our relationship with the cruise industry. First look into why the Infrastructure Maintenance Act passed by the 25 Legislature has not been implemented by this administration. A total of six percent of your property tax dollars is supposed to have been set aside to bring the levels of our roads, portable water lines and street lights up to modern standards. W.A.P.A. recently removed this charge because customers were paying twice for the same street lighting charge. In my testimony at the hearing I supported a reasonable incremental increase in our head tax. In many ways, I believe the entire Caribbean should unite bringing this tax up in a slow reasonable way. If we can focus on designating our tax dollars on remaining competitive in the world tourism market, our product would reflect that investment. Presently the V.I. has a market share of around 52 percent regionally. In my testimony I offered other solutions such as these. Place an emphasis on increased costumer service training, increasing public transportation; this includes water taxis and nonpolluting forms of vehicles. I might add the police should always enforce all laws pertaining to a smooth flow of traffic. We should be focusing on completing our slated public projects, such as revitalizing the downtown as a choice destination. We should be building multi leveled parking buildings and bathrooms for downtown Charlotte Amalie. We should negotiate for an increase in the number of mid to upper level spending cruise passengers in the agreement. We should urge the cruise lines to limit the number of on board shops that replicate the offering we have at our storefronts. Finally, our beaches and historic places need and deserve more care by everyone. If the Governor can finally select qualified members to the Territorial Park Trust Fund Board, our beaches and cultural places will be the most sought after throughout the Caribbean and world. I hope together we achieve these goals.
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