updated 2/28/2005 6:13:24 PM ET 2005-02-28T23:13:24

Despite its white sand beaches, coral reefs and historic sites including centuries-old sugar mills, St. Croix has been bypassed recently by most tourists cruising the Caribbean.

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That is about to change, as Royal Caribbean cruise ships begin making twice-weekly overnight stops in the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The return of Royal Caribbean comes two years after most major cruise lines suspended visits to St. Croix, citing crime and saying there wasn't enough for passengers to do.

St. Croix went from hosting an average of 230,000 passengers annually to 2,300 from smaller cruise companies.

Passengers are now allowed to disembark again on the island and explore downtown Fredriksted. Although Miami-based Royal Caribbean says the primary purpose is to refuel on an island that is home to an oil refinery, St. Croix also will be on display in its effort to win back visitors.

"All the eyes of all the other lines are on St. Croix," said Michele Paige, president of the Miami-based Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. "If it isn't a positive experience for passengers, St. Croix has nobody to blame but themselves."

Tourism officials are trying to make a good impression with a street fair, and a steel drum band will greet the expected 3,500 passengers aboard the Navigator of the Seas. Vendors will be out selling handicrafts.

On the downside, there won't be many stores open near the pier. Two years ago there were 11 stores on Strand Street in front of the cruise ship port. Now only one remains, the Island Webe souvenir shop.

Store owner Leslie Monseque, 31, said part of the problem with the new cruise ship visits is that they will be quick nighttime stops, allowing passengers to be on land only between 8 p.m. and midnight.

St. Croix has more to offer tourists in the day, including horseback riding and world-class snorkeling at the underwater Buck Island Reef National Monument, said Anna Maria Hector, president of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce.

The island also has historic sites including plantation ruins that were once home U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton.

Christopher Columbus landed on the island more than 500 years ago - the only place he is known to visited on what is now U.S. soil.

Since then, Spanish, English, Dutch, French, Danish and American flags have flown over the island. In 1917, the United States purchased St. Croix from Denmark along with St. Thomas and St. John - the other two main islands in the U.S. Caribbean territory of 110,000 residents.

The return of major cruise ships operated by Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., could one day bring new life seaside boardwalks lined with brightly painted colonial buildings.

Robberies that had made the island less attractive two years ago have become less frequent. But police still plan to have more officers on the street during the cruise stops.

With unemployment at 13 percent in St. Croix, the cruise ships could bring the economy a needed boost.

But taxi driver and tour operator John Henry, 60, said he has some doubts the cruises will keep visiting for good. "We'll just wait and see if the ships really come back or not," he said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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