Seatrade Cruise News is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

USVI governor updates on recovery, dredging, cruise competitiveness

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. addressing the Interagency Group on Insular Areas in Washington on Thursday
US Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. was at the White House Friday morning as President Biden met with the nation's governors and signed a FEMA waiver that means $1.1b in relief to the territory.

It is something Bryan has worked on for five years and helps support the continued recovery from 2017's devastating Hurricane Irma, and it is relevant to tourism and the cruise sector.

No wonder Bryan called his visit to Washington for the National Governors Association Winter meeting and the 2024 annual meeting of the Interagency Group on Insular Areas (part of the Department of the Interior that deals with territories) 'pretty productive.'

Enhancing reliability and resilience

Addressing the IGIA Thursday, Bryan highlighted the importance of reducing the local cost share on pending and future hurricane recovery and infrastructure projects. He emphasized this adjustment allows the Virgin Islands government to access crucial funds allocated for disaster recovery, enhancing infrastructure reliability and resilience against climate-driven catastrophes.

In federal emergencies, territories must cover 10% of FEMA costs. For USVI, the hurricane recovery bill ballooned from $8b to $15b and it will hit $19b by the time things are finished, Bryan said. Coming up with 10% of that would mean almost 40% of GDP and a heavy cost to the territory's taxpayers.

Rebuilding tourism

During an interview with Seatrade Cruise News following his IGIA address, the governor explained the FEMA waiver will have a profoundly positive impact on rebuilding with benefits to the tourism sector and, therefore, cruising.

'We're very grateful to the Biden administration,' Bryan said, adding that the president knows the territory well.

Biden and first lady Jill Biden spent a week in St. Croix over the New Year and have vacationed in the USVI stretching back more than a dozen years, according to CNN.

Dredging hoped to start Q1 2025

The FEMA waiver frees up money to proceed with projects that impact cruising such as harbor dredging and road repair/improvements.

Bryan said approval by the Army Corps of Engineers for dredging is expected by April, with bidding and mobilization for the project to follow. The hope is to start work by the first quarter of 2025 in what is expected to be a $25m project.

The main harbor, Havensight and Crown Bay are targeted. At the West Indian Co. (WICO) berths, work entails dredging the turning basin to 40 feet and alongside the dock to 38 feet. Currently, silt and build-up are keeping away the largest ships, such as Carnival Cruise Line's Excel class, there.

Bryan also said work on the second part of the waterfront Veterans Drive needs to be completed as this impacts connectivity to downtown and its merchants.

Crown Bay's third berth

Meanwhile, world's largest cruise ship Icon of the Seas is able to call at the Royal Caribbean facilities at Crown Bay and visits every other week.

Plans for a third berth and an extensive upland project at Crown Bay, part of a long-term agreement between the Virgin Islands Port Authority and Royal Caribbean, are progressing, the governor said.

'We need to bring the area back to life,' he said.

An additional $5 head tax there is covering a lot of pre-development work, Bryan said, and leases are being trimmed out to create a 'blank space' that in future may house a water park and other entertainment venues. Bryan said Royal Caribbean and VIPA had presented 'myriad' plans but no final decisions have been reached.

In another change to benefit Crown Bay, the cargo area used by Crowley and Tropical Shipping is getting $23m worth of improvements. Currently those facilities generate 'a lot of dust,' but they are vital as a large transshipment point for cruise line provisions.

Bryan described USVI's relationship with Royal Caribbean Group as 'very good' and said he's excited about attending Seatrade Cruise Global in Miami in April to build relationships with other companies.

Trying to get back to 2m cruisers

'We're proud of the cruise industry and how quickly it's rebounded,' Bryan said, adding that it wasn't expected cruising would come back so quickly after COVID.

However, the territory is still trying to get back to the 2m cruisers it once had.

Competing with Bahamas and working with Puerto Rico

With The Bahamas benefiting from proximity to major US homeports, numbers there are soaring, and operators have lower fuel costs while ships can go to an increasing variety of private destinations.

Bryan said the No. 1 way USVI can compete is with 'the tourism product we deliver. St. Thomas is a premier destination. Customers ask for us.'

The territory also works closely with Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and supports San Juan's homeporting initiative, which would boost USVI's cruise calls. Bryan said Global Ports Holdings' San Juan Cruise Port development plans 'absolutely' help in this effort.

At the same time, 'Airlift is a real crisis and we're trying to figure out what to do.' San Juan misses the American Eagle hub, which greatly helped inter-connectivity throughout the region. But a partnership with the Dominican Republic's SKYHigh is certainly beneficial.

Facilitating non-US visitors/European ships

Bryan said USVI is also working to accommodate European ship calls at WICO and Crown Bay by continuing to advocate in Washington for 30-day and 90-day visa waivers and updated technology.

Implementing facial recognition software for US Customs and Border Protection would enable non-US travelers on cruise ships to be screened more quickly.

Currently, 'It takes so long,' the governor said.

Should such changes to facilitate visits by non-US travelers be realized, Bryan estimated the potential to attract another 2m cruisers.