Large cruise vessels have returned to the U.S. Virgin Islands following nearly two years of pandemic-driven inactivity. Yet port calls to the destination remain far below pre-pandemic totals and are unlikely to return to pre-outbreak levels until 2024, the territory’s tourism commissioner said Wednesday.
“We received roughly 12 to 15 percent of our normal cruise capacity in 2021 and this year we’re at somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of where we normally are,” said Joseph Boschulte, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ tourism commissioner, in an exclusive interview with TravelPulse following his participation in cruise-focused panel discussions at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference in Miami.
Boschulte predicts major cruise lines will sail at 60 percent of capacity by the end of this year and through 2023. “So 2024 is when we expect to be back to where we were pre-COVID,” he said.
At the Miami conference, U.S. Virgin Islands officials announced a partnership with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) focused on “increasing the destination’s overall economic impact from cruise tourism.”
The pact’s objectives include “increased cruise calls, new experiences and products, collaboration with the local private sector, more employment and purchasing opportunities, conversion of cruise guests to overnight visitors, promotion of summer cruising, creation of consumer demand [and] travel agent outreach.”
“This collaboration aligns with the objectives we have focused on as a destination since the pandemic,” Boschulte said. “The focus on converting cruisers to overnight guests allows us to market the amazing experiences a visitor can expect across the islands from dusk to dawn and creating a market for repeat visitation.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands relies significantly on cruise traffic as a key component of its tourism mix. In 2019, the territory hosted 1.43 million cruise ship visitors, the seventh-highest total among destinations tracked by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
“Prior to the pandemic, 70 percent of our 2.2 million visitors came via cruise to the territory,” Boschulte said. “When the world shut down our cruise business shut for 18 months. So we went from a very robust cruise tourism business to none,” he said.
“At that time, our department along with our leaders in the territory made a decision to change gears a bit and focus aggressively on our overnight business, our marine charter business and our superyacht business. They are flourishing as we speak.”
Meanwhile, Boschulte said that the U.S. Virgin Islands has rebounded strongly in terms of air service. “Our airlift into the territory throughout the pandemic has been historic,” he said. “In 2021 we actually set the record for the most airlift passengers to come into the territory. So we’re doing extremely well.”
Said Boschulte, “We’re thankful the territory was able to implement very strong protocols for health and safety and that our private sector businesses as well as our off-island partners airlines, cruise lines and of course the visitors of all done a great job in following the protocols which have kept our numbers relatively low compared to most of the world.”
Returning cruise ship visitors will find a new aesthetic in historic Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas, the territory’s primary cruise port, Boschulte said. “The experience in town is actually much improved from pre-COVID to post-COVID,” he said.
“There was a multi-million-dollar renovation of the downtown and Main Street, which is the center of downtown Charlotte Amalie,” said Boschulte. “There was a major $1 million expansion of the waterfront promenade from the [Havensight] dock into downtown, and so there’s been a significant upgrade of the infrastructure.”
He added, “Not unlike many places around the world, there has been some casualties of the pandemic [from the] lack of cruise business, so that we have seen some stores closed,” he said.
“But the good side we’re seeing is that there is a rekindling of interest again now that the ships have started to sail, and we started to see more than 30 or 40 percent of the [previous] cruise attendance,” Boschulte said. “We certainly see those people start to come back and the stores beginning to open up again.”