(1:30 p.m. EST) -- The long-awaited Oasis of the Seas, the world's biggest ever cruise ship, is now on its regular itinerary rotation. And that calls for a weekly visit, each Tuesday, to St. Thomas, already one of the most cruise congested ports in the Caribbean.
The logical question is: What kind of chaos and gridlock is Royal Caribbean's mega-ship, which can hold as many as 6,300 passengers (not to mention another 2,000 crew members), causing in St. Thomas, not to mention on the beaches of the nearby sister island of St. John?
"Last Tuesday at Trunk Bay it looked like Coney Island," says St. John resident Mary Bartolucci.
Mind you, Bartolucci, proprietor of Island Style Weddings, also noted that this particular week -- the holiday period between Christmas and New Year's -- is the year's busiest without any help from Oasis of the Seas. Still, with five ships in port most Tuesdays (others include Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Pearl, Costa Atlantica, and Carnival's Dream and Freedom), potentially representing some 17,000 day-trippers, it's understandable that rumors abound that the two islands will simply be over-run with tourists every Tuesday well into 2010's spring cruising season. Tuesday this season is the biggest day of the week for St. Thomas.
So far, with the season just beginning -- and ships not sailing with all berths filled -- the most folks who've debarked on the "new Oasis Tuesdays" has been shy of 14,000. That's still a lot of people, but the island's used to that. According to Brian Shelton, founder of CruiseCal.com, a Web site that publishes port schedules, in 2009, Tuesdays were also the biggest day of the week for cruise ships with five visiting on a regular weekly basis. Norwegian Dawn, Holland America's Maasdam, Princess' Emerald Princess, Carnival Glory and Carnival Freedom, drew an average 13,000 day visitors.
And yet: so far we've not heard many, if any, complaints about St. Thomas (and St. John) gridlock -- on Oasis of the Seas' day.
"I honestly haven't noticed any difference because we're so prepared for this," says Shaun Pennington, publisher of The Virgin Island Source, an online newspaper. On-island preparations -- which have included improving traffic control, expanding taxi dispatch capabilities, and, for tour operators, bulking up on staffing during peak days -- have been effective. "It's actually not been bad at all."
Pennington's observation is echoed by others. Spokespersons for NCL, Costa and Carnival, for example, tell us that no significant changes have been made to excursion lineups, and claim that there are enough shore tour offerings to fully accommodate their guests. The same applies for independent operators, according to Beverly Nicholson-Doty, Commissioner of Tourism.
On the other hand, Judy Reeves -- the owner of Cruise Ship Excursions, the largest tour operator on St. Thomas -- says that the company has made some adjustments; it brings on more employees to accommodate the additional visitors on high-traffic days.
St. Thomas Sprawl
St. Thomas is the most populated of the four U.S. Virgin Islands (in addition to St. John, these also include nearby Water Island and St. Croix, which is attempting to develop its own reputation as a key cruise port).
The combination of St. Thomas and St. John, which is a 20-minute ferry ride away, has long been a cruise favorite with its massive duty-free shopping opportunities on merchandise ranging from rum to gold. That the U.S. government offers an especially generous duty-free exemption on stuff bought here only helps St. Thomas' appeal. Beaches abound, from active to bucolic. There's history to be experienced in this one-time Danish colony (aim for downtown Charlotte Amalie's "99 steps" neighborhood) and an active water sports scene features sailing, scuba, parasailing and kayaking, among other activities.
Less widely known is that there are numerous superb restaurants on both islands and that the U.S.V.I. is home to a thriving arts and crafts scene. So there's definitely enough depth in terms of activities, attractions and services, to placate more people than most island cruise ports.
Also, while St. Thomas has long been a favorite spot for cruise ships, so far -- as we write this story on the last day of 2009 -- its new Tuesday crowd did not in December, traditionally a slower month for cruise travel, come close to breaking the record for most passengers ever to debark on St. Thomas in a single day. That dubious honor occurred sometime in 2006, according to Allegra Kean-Moorehead, director of communications for St. Thomas tourism, who noted that a record "close to 16,000 or 17,000" travelers were ashore then.
Smashing a New Record?
It's possible that, should all go ahead as planned, cruise ship day-trippers will be venturing off ships in a new, record-breaking capacity soon. On Tuesday, March 2, St. Thomas will match its "most ever ships in a single day" with seven planning to debark travelers. The five Tuesday regulars will be joined by Holland America's Noordam and Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas, and the combined passenger load, should all ships be full, would be a whopping 21,560. That's calculated based on double occupancy numbers; if cabins with third and fourth berths are filled, the number goes as much as 10 percent higher, stretching to 23,000-plus.
Until this happens, there's no way to know whether the island's infrastructure will successfully manage to transport, entertain, amuse and feed the masses who will be on island that day. But one thing's clear already: Royal Caribbean, and by extension, the USVI tourist industry, has done a lot of homework when it comes to preparing for the onslaught. First and foremost is spreading out the ships. Oasis, for instance, docks at its own port at Crown Bay, across the harbor from Havensight, which accommodates the other ships, and located on the opposite side of Charlotte Amalie.
The creation of a second taxi drop off point has been established in the town area to ease traffic. The taxi company that operates in the Crown Bay area has contracted with other taxi associations in the event they need extra taxis to accommodate the visitors. And the police department has placed traffic officers at strategic points on the island's roads to help direct the flow of traffic.
When asked if rental cars would be tougher to obtain, Nicholson-Doty, the Commissioner of Tourism, told us that most day-visitors don't rent cars in the first place and pointed out the "good mix of tours, taxis and public transportation" available. (We'd still recommend you book car rentals, especially in St. John, in advance of your visit.)
Even with the enhanced efforts, there's no question that the more popular places on St. Thomas, such as Magen's Bay and downtown's duty-free mecca, and the beaches of St. John's Trunk Bay and Cinnamon Bay, in particular, will be noticeably more crowded. Travelers seeking a bit more solitude should make an effort, which is reasonably easy, to go off-the-grid here. From St. Thomas, why not try Coki Beach or Water Island's Honeymoon Beach, for a more peaceful vibe? Get your duty-free shopping out of the way early in the day -- and then troll the isle for more unique treasures made by local artisans. And on St. John, head across-island to the village of Coral Bay, around which there are numerous beaches, and some pretty fun and funky eateries, typically only patronized by locals.
Oasis of the Seas' impact on St. Thomas is not, by the way, an isolated situation. The ship's regular Eastern Caribbean itinerary also calls in St. Maarten and at the Bahamas' Nassau -- which are also among the most-visited islands by cruise ships in the Caribbean.
We'll keep an eye on cruise port congestion, not just on St. Thomas but also throughout the Caribbean and will keep you posted on any issues that arise. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to share your Caribbean port experiences with us by writing a member review.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief, and Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor
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It's Tuesday in St. Thomas: Gridlock Alert?
December 31, 2009