Dear Editor,

The Bryan Administration announced that the Public Finance Authority authorized $17 million to dredge the Charlotte Amalie harbor. Two reasons were given for the dredging operation.

First, WICO reported that 21 Oasis-class cruise ships in a year had to be turned away, representing a significant loss of revenue. Each Oasis-class ship carries upward of 6,500 passengers and 2,200 crew. Passenger head tax, wharfage fees, and the average tourist expenditure of $165 represent a sizeable infusion of money in the St. Thomas economy. The Main Street merchants and Chamber of Commerce hailed the plan.

Second, WICO authorities noted that Charlotte Amalie harbor was last dredged 50 years ago. Sedimentation and large storms have added deposits and moved sand over the years, reducing the harbor’s depth. The shallower turning channel in the harbor posed a risk that a large ship could become grounded. A large ship blocking the port would be economically costly, forcing other ships to change their itinerary, triggering insurance claims, and damaging the reputation of WICO.

Several commented that the expenditure of $17 million was not advisable. Some mentioned that because the cruise ship industry had changed over the years with tourists spending less and less on shore, meaning that the amount of gross receipts that would have to be earned to pay for the dredging would not be forthcoming in a reasonably short period. Ergo, $17 million would be best spent on other pressing priorities.

After assessing the two arguments, dredging for navigational safety is a solid argument. Dredging a busy harbor or highly trafficked waterway can be likened to an essential maintenance activity, especially after 50 years. The price tag seems a little high, but there is the hope that Federal monies can be sought to reimburse the local government. The second argument about being able to attract more Oasis-class ships is not as strong and not convincing.

What seems to be the thinking is that dredging is phase one of a larger scheme to build a finger dock that can accommodate two additional Oasis-class berths. The larger goal is to have a total of four Oasis-class berths. An Memorandum of Understanding between the V.I. government and Royal Caribbean was signed in fall 2021 to explore dredging and making accommodations for more Oasis-class and eventually the newest Icon class of ship in St. Thomas and Frederiksted, St. Croix.

The reasoning is that the cruise industry is moving toward mega-ships as the future of cruising. That host communities like the Virgin Islands must enter an arms race with other island destinations to build berths that can accommodate these mega-ships. The cruise ship operators are intimating to the destination communities that if you do not have an Oasis-class berth, you will not be a preferred port of call. St. Kitts and Nevis have four berths, the most in the Caribbean, followed by The Bahamas, St. Thomas, VI, and St. Maarten. Historically, St. Thomas, VI has ranked fourth on the list of most popular Caribbean cruise ship destinations after the Bahamas, Cozumel, Mexico, and George Town, Grand Cayman. Still, St. Maarten and St. Kitts, competing destinations in the Eastern Caribbean, are rising fast.

The question for the V.I. community is can we evaluate what type of tourism is good for us? Can we consider what is sustainable tourism and what is not? What can be done to diversify and upgrade our tourism product? How can we best spread the benefits of tourism and minimize the adverse effects?

Along this line of thinking, Phase 2 of the Bryan administration’s plan to build a finger pier into the center of the Charlotte Amalie harbor in front of Long Bay needs in-depth evaluation. No serious economic or environmental impact study seems to be in the back of the minds of the authorities. It seems full steam ahead with building more Oasis-class berths (Long Bay Landing Project) because “we have to stay competitive in the number of Oasis berths, full stop.”

Here are a few points that should be studied and discussed openly in the community.

First, a finger pier into the middle of the harbor will irrevocably mar the beauty of the natural basin. Charlotte Amalie is one of the five prettiest harbors in the Caribbean. Will building two Oasis-class berths yield “manna from heaven” when the per capita expenditure is stagnant downward for cruise tourists and compensates for a forever changed harbor?

Second, having three to four Oasis-class ships in port at the same time will most likely pose serious congestion problems that will degrade the experience of visiting tourists and harm our overall reputation as a tourist destination.

Imagine 18,000 to 24,000 tourists trying to get to the most popular attractions on St. Thomas — Magens Bay, Coki Point, Sapphire Beach, Red Hook area for boat excursions parasailing, kayaking, and jet skiing; and to Mountain Top and Main Street shopping district.

A prudent approach before signing on to build a $110 million finger pier because Royal Caribbean told you to do it would be to determine the physical and social carrying capacity of major attractions. For example, Magens Bay is our premier beach attraction. We should take digital aerial photographs of the beach and superimpose 2 x2 meter grids from 25 meters above the high-tide mark to 100 meters out into the water to determine maximum capacity (one person can fit in each grid).

Then we can evaluate the social carrying capacity by calculating the density per square meter and surveying people on “crowded days” and “empty days” to arrive at some interpolation of what people consider a “comfortable distance.”

Next would be to hire a transport engineer and monitor the traffic with sensor strips on the approach road coming down from Louisenhoj Castle. The goal would be to determine what maximum number of vehicles that can use this main approach road in an hour without becoming congested and backed up. When big events on Magens Bay like the King of the Wing competition attract roughly 2,000 or so people, traffic is snarled up to Magens Junction and Flamboyant Hotel. Imagine what traffic will be like when you have 24,000 visitors and 6,000 want to go to the fabled Magens Bay? Imagine the experience at Coki Point, Coral World — an attraction with even worse access and parking accommodations than Magens Bay.

Third, as a very small tourist-dependent economy, we should be trying to maximize tourist expenditures, not the number of tourist arrivals.

Instead of accommodating 18,000 to 24,000 visitors on a single day in a place with a population of 55,000 and a narrow and inadequate road system, we should focus on attracting fewer, but high spending stay over tourists. For the high-spending tourist, we should ensure a safe, clean, well-maintained environment and a lot of compelling and exciting attractions and have them rave about their experiences to other high-spending individuals.

We should be focusing on maximizing total tourist expenditure, not the number of visitors. We should be concentrated on environmental sustainability and the quality of the tourist experience for repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. We should honestly and thoroughly evaluate and assess what means sense for us as a people and not just the vested interests in this legacy industry. We need to do a cost-benefit analysis on propositions. We should be masters of our tourism development strategy, not Royal Caribbean.

— Mark Wenner, St. Thomas, is an economist.