While President Obama still needs to sign off, a bill now through both houses of the U.S. Congress exempts uninspected Virgin Islands boats under 24 meters (78.7 feet) from the current limit of six passengers. The legislation would allow them to carry up to a dozen passengers.
The U.S. House of Representatives got the ball rolling a week ago with the passage of a six-pack exemption bill. According to Government House, the Senate passed its version of the bill Tuesday, and the House later that night approved a bill that reconciled the language in both bills.
This exemption stands to revitalize the territory’s once lucrative charter boat industry that fled to the nearby British Virgin Islands and other Caribbean locations after the 1993 enactment of the Passengers Vessel Safety Act, which limited the number of passengers to six.
“This is a step towards equity for our charter industry and an economic boost for our maritime industries as a whole,” Gov. John deJongh Jr. said.
“The restriction to six passengers has been a long outstanding issue that has put us at a competitive disadvantage to the rest of region and especially with a niche that we know is attracted to our natural resources and all that we have to offer,” he said. “This amendment is the first of a number of actions to let this market know that we are open for business and that we want their business.”
DeJongh said the legislation would provide an incentive for charter yacht operators who moved to the BVI to return, which would in turn stimulate businesses related to the charter industry. Those businesses include riggers, outfitters, sailmakers, provisioners, docking facilities, marinas, insurance providers, and maintenance and repair centers. It will also provide opportunities for captains and crewmembers, port divers and mechanics.
DeJongh said that before 1993, the territory’s harbors were filled with hundreds of vessels that brought millions in jobs and annual revenue to the local economy. Information provided by Government House indicated the marine industry contributed $100 to $130 million dollars a year in the mid-1980s. Currently the marine industry generates an estimated $30 million dollars a year. This represents an estimated loss of revenues to the territory of $2 billion dollars since the passage of the six-pack law.
Members of the Virgin Islands charter industry are elated. However, Kelly Kiernan, a member of the V.I. Marine Economic Council and a member of the territory’s yachting industry, said she doesn’t think the territory will immediately see the economic impact.
“But in the next five to 10 years, we’ll see the marine industry explode,” Kiernan said.
She said she’s heard from several large charter boat owners who said they would again homeport their boats in the Virgin Islands if the six-pack exemption passed.
According to Kiernan, there are many benefits to home porting in the Virgin Islands. In addition to having an international airport, St. Thomas also offers cheaper provisioning and maintenance than the nearby British Virgin Islands, she said.
Charter boat owner Hank Hampton agreed. He said that it will be a benefit to guests who had to fly in to St. Thomas, usually spend the night in a St. Thomas hotel, and then take the ferry to Tortola, where Hampton would pick them up for a charter on board his 50-foot boat, Feel the Magic. His boat can carry up to eight passengers, and in order to accommodate that number on his U.S.-flagged boat, he had to go that route.
With the passage of the six-pack exemption bill, he’ll now be able to pick up passengers directly on St. Thomas.
“It changes the whole scheme of things,” he said.
The bill allows for the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish standards to carry out this section of the U.S. Code.
Marine industry leaders have worked since 1993 for the passage of an exemption, Government House indicated.
The first strong support came from Rep. Bill Shuster, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Its subcommittee on U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Transportation met with Virgin Islands marine industry representatives last year. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, guided the bill to the floor and through the final senate vote.