May 2, 2006 – An amendment tacked onto a federal Homeland Security bill might bring some relief to the territory's charter boat operators who now have to report who's on board their boats before leaving and returning to the territory.
"I'm sure a study can help us prove to the feds that it's having an impact," V.I. Charter Yacht League Director Pamela Wilson said Tuesday.
The amendment, passed last week, calls for the Homeland Security secretary to study the impact of the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) reporting requirement on the territory's charter industry. Currently operators must file reports to a U.S. Homeland Security Department Web site.
Wilson said that the effect on boats that go out for multiple days, called term charters, isn't much because those captains have computers on board or can use secretarial services to do their reporting.
However, she said day sailboats are suffering because the captains only have a short window of time in which to make their reports because they're out in the morning and back in the afternoon.
"If the power goes out, you're stuck," Wilson said.
She said some boats have stopped sailing to Jost Van Dyke in the nearby British Virgin Islands because of the difficulty in reporting.
Wilson said she understands how that could affect St. Thomas tourism because many visitors enjoy a day trip to the popular Foxy's Bar on Jost Van Dyke. She said that some tourists may decide to spend only a few days on St. Thomas before heading to the B.V.I. so they can more easily get to Foxy's.
She said by next winter's tourism season, boats may decide they've had enough of chartering in the Virgin Islands, adding, "This may just be the straw that broke the camel's back."
Wilson said she hopes that once the study is done, Homeland Security will make grants to charter boat owners to help them buy computers so they can file their passenger lists online or get passport reading machines.
According to a news release from Delegate Donna M. Christensen's office, the APIS study requirement was attached in the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee to the Security and Accountability for Every Ports bill, termed SAFE for short.
"We have been working to secure a waiver of the boating regulations since they were put in place and this amendment will go a long way in achieving our goal," Christensen said.
Christensen also successfully added amendments to the SAFE bill calling for a Border Patrol Unit for the Virgin Islands and appropriating $1.8 billion to help the U.S. Coast Guard replace its aging fleet of boats and aircraft.
Christensen said the money will enable the Coast Guard to increase its surveillance capability so it can better detect and intercept suspicious vessels before they reach U.S. shores.
Sen. Lorraine Berry Monday sent out a press release noting that she lobbied U.S. government officials to make the changes in the APIS law.
Berry's chief of staff, James Francis, said Tuesday that Berry received letters of support from senators, U.S. House members, Homeland Security officials, Vice President Dick Cheney and President Bush.
"We've gotten some responses," he said. Francis promised to fax some of the responses, but they never arrived.
Francis said that Berry's efforts were in response to the Legislature's November 2005 resolution that called for the study.
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