Aug. 7, 2003 – The coming cruise ship season bodes well for St. Thomas, pretty okay for St. John and not at all for St. Croix.
Some key issues are still up in the air — which ships will berth at the expanded Crown Bay docking facility when it opens for business, whether any full-size ships can be enticed to give St. Croix a try, what can be done about itineraries of ships now scheduled to make for Sint Maarten before steaming on to St. Thomas, and when the Norway will return to service.
But what is known, The West Indian Co. announced this week, is that there currently are 159 more St. Thomas calls scheduled for the coming year — Oct. 1, 2003, through Sept. 30, 2004 — than for this year. The total numbers are 821 calls for the year about to end and 980 for the one to come.
And the 2003-04 figures add up to a projected 1.35 million passengers during the peak season, 550,000 more next summer and 600,000 crew visits.
According to WICO's president and chief executive officer, Edward E. Thomas Sr., the St. Thomas-St. John district had 1.7 million cruise passenger arrivals in the year ended Sept. 30, 2002, down from 1.9 million the year before that. There had been expectations of passing the magic 2 million mark until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their impact on leisure travel. Passenger figures were reportedly down again this year for the peak winter months.
For the coming year, WICO's breakdown month by month shows 58 St. Thomas calls in October, up from 49; 100 in November, up from 71; 120 in December, up from 98; 125 in December, up from 103; 118 in February, up from 95; 130 in March, up from 111; 96 in April, up from 93; 48 in May, up from 46; 48 in June, up from 37; 45 in July, up from 41; 50 in August, up from 37; and 42 in September, up from 40.
St. Thomas is scheduled to welcome two brand-new ships in the coming season: The Queen Mary II is to make its first call on Jan. 24 and has six others scheduled for later in the year. And the Caribbean Princess will make its initial call on April 27 and continue throughout the summer season.
Meanwhile, the Carnival Glory, just launched in July, will be new to the high season, although it is making some calls at St. Thomas this summer.
And the Mariner of the Seas, launched last November, will make its first call on Nov. 26, beginning biweekly visits to St. Thomas year 'round.
Cunard Line's Queen Mary II is being promoted as a ship of superlatives — variously described in publicity as "the biggest, most luxurious and most expensive cruise ship ever" and "the longest, largest and tallest" ship ever built. Still under construction in St. Nazaire, France, with launching set for January, it will have 17 decks and rise 200 feet above the water line — as high as a 21-story or 23-story building, depending on whose p.r. you read. And it will have a cruising speed of 30 knots, making it one of the fastest cruise liners in the water. (By comparison, the Mariner of the Seas cruises at 22 knots.)
The QM2 will carry 2,620 passengers and 1,250 crew members, and its amenities will include five swimming pools (one of them indoors), a "winter garden," a 570-seat cinema and a planetarium. Cunard, which also owns the Queen Elizabeth 2, is owned by Carnival Corp.
Princess Cruises' Caribbean Princess, with a capacity of 3,100 passengers, is being built specifically for the Caribbean trade and will be the company's largest vessel. The Princess Web site has few other details about the vessel except to say that it will weigh in at 116,000 tons and will continue its 2004 inaugural season with a "Classic Eastern Caribbean" itinerary out of Fort Lauderdale with stops at St. Thomas, Sint Maarten and the private Princess Cays.
Carnival Lines' Carnival Glory had its maiden voyage in July out of Port Canaveral. Promoted as one of Carnival's "Fun Ships," it's aimed at a family market. It carries a standard 2,974 passengers and can squeeze in up to 3,427 with kids in all the extra bunks; the crew numbers 1,160. The vessel's 14 decks include a 3,300-square-foot "play area," a 1,500-square-foot health club, and a steakhouse-style supper club.
Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas, launched last Nov. 23, carries a standard 3,114 passengers (and as many as 3,835) along with 1,180 crew. A Voyager-class vessel, it features such enticements as an ice-skating rink, a rock-climbing wall, an inline skating track and a basketball court. Sound family oriented, too? Guess what — it also sails out of Port Canaveral — which is just a couple hours' drive from Disney World and all those other land attractions for kids of all ages.
One thing these vessels have in common is the standard ploy these days of offering passengers so much to do on board that there's relatively little incentive to get off the ship. The challenge for the tourist sector in today's ports of call is to come up with marketing that will make them want to do so.
WICO has released berthing assignments for Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. Those for Jan. 1 through March 2004 "will be issued around the middle of December, when the construction schedule for the completion of the north side of the Crown Bay pier is definitive," the company said.
The Crown Bay dock, which previously extended 200 feet on one side and 500 feet on the other, will be more than 900 feet long on both sides with the expansion under way. This will allow two of the largest cruise vessels in use and under construction to berth there at a time, planners have said.
As recently as May, officials of the Port Authority, which owns and is expanding the Crown Bay property, had set April of 2004 as the targeted completion date. However, at groundbreaking ceremonies in June the date was pushed forward to June of next year. (See the St. Thomas Source report "Crown Bay project targeted for finish in a year".)
The West Indian Co. controls berthing at the WICO dock in Havensight, where the vast majority of cruise ships have tied up until now. The dock can accommodate three of the large eagle-class vessels at a time; on days when there are more ships in port, they have in recent years utilized the Crown Bay dock or anchored in the inner or outer St. Thomas harbor.
VIPA officials have said one side of the Crown Bay dock will be open at a time during the construction work. Until the expanded facilities are operational next year, more ships than usual will likely be dropping anchor and having to tender their passengers to shore and back — something cruise lines generally prefer not to do.
St. John and St. Croix
Through the end of December, St. John will get weekly visits from one ship, the Pacific, on Sundays; and a total of four calls by the Wind Spirit, two by the Crystal Serenity, and one each by the Crystal Symphony, Crystal Harmony, SeaDream I, SeaDream II, Seabourn Legend and Seabourn Pride.
St. Croix has no large cruise ships regularly scheduled to call at the Ann E. Abramson pier in Frederiksted in the year to come, although two vessels have single visits planned, one in January and the other next May.
The only St. Croix calls on the WICO berthing schedule through Dec. 31 are by the SeaDream II on Nov. 23, Dec. 7 and Dec. 14; and the SeaDream I on Dec. 28. Both are small luxury vessels that carry about a hundred passengers and cruise throughout the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
"There is continuing dialogue as to whether more cruise ships visit Sint Maarten prior to arriving in St. Thomas," the WICO release states. "This is an important issue, as it affects passenger spending patterns in this district."
At an economic forum in May on St. Thomas, retailers and business leaders raised their concern about the number of ships stopping at Philipsburg, the duty-free arch-rival to Charlotte
Amalie in the Eastern Caribbean, immediately before calling at St. Thomas. At the time, Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards' response was: "I could care less; I just want them to come to the V.I." Cassan Pancham, St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce president, countered: "The tourist has a limited amount of money to spend … If we don't have the priority, we lose the spending."
A number of ships that sail out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and now Port Canaveral, Florida, make only three stops during their week's cruise — at a privately owned island in the Bahamas, St. Thomas and Sint Maarten. Other enticements notwithstanding, the biggest draw at both Charlotte Amalie and Philipsburg remains "shop 'til you drop." And, St. Thomas merchants are convinced, which port comes first definitely makes a difference in passengers' spending patterns.
The WICO release lays out the number of cruises in the coming high season that are scheduled to stop at St. Thomas, then either proceed to Sint Maarten or not call there at all: October — 43 out of 58 in October, 71 out of 100 in November, 95 out of 120 in December, 112 out of 125 in January, 96 out of 118 in February, 110 out of 130 in March and 75 out of 96 in April.
That, of course, is looking at the doughnut — or the life ring — and not the hole. From the other perspective, there will be15 cruises with stops at Philipsburg first in October, 29 in November, and so on.
On St. Thomas, the impact of these Sint Maarten-first itineraries will be felt most strongly on Wednesdays at the height of the season, when the Explorer of the Seas, Disney Magic, Golden Princess, Zaandam, Zuiderdam and Sunbird all will be arriving direct from Philipsburg. Not all ships call every week, but there are Wednesdays on the WICO berthing schedule when all four ships in port will be from this group.
"The Norway is not expected to return to service until sometime in 2004," the WICO release states. The West Indian Co. "is still in discussions with Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Lines for a possible replacement on the Eastern Caribbean itinerary," it says.
For two decades, the bright blue ship with its distinctive twin smokestacks has been anchoring in the St. Thomas outer harbor and ferrying passengers ashore in tenders it carries aboard ship. It had been scheduled for repositioning to the Pacific in the fall of 2001, but after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the mainland, the decision was made to return it to the Caribbean.
The vessel was docked in its homeport of Miami on May 25 when an explosion occurred in the engine room. Four crew members were killed in the blast; four others subsequently died of injuries. None of the 2,135 passengers on board were injured.
Norwegian Cruise Line, which owns the ship, initially said cruises would resume at the end of June. But two weeks later, the company canceled all cruises through Sept. 28. The 41-year-old ship was towed from the port of Miami on June 27 for repairs in Europe, with NCL saying in a statement that ''it is becoming clearer with each additional day of inspections that the repair work is likely to take months rather than weeks."
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