St. Croix is readying its brightly painted colonial buildings and centuries-old sugar mills to welcome cruise ship passengers to the U.S. island that has been bypassed in recent years because of concerns about crime.
Disney Cruise Line on Tuesday announced new eastern Caribbean itineraries for 2009, with one seven-night cruise featuring a day stop in the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where tourism provides much-needed income and islanders greet passengers with a fair of crafts and music.
Most major cruise lines suspended visits to St. Croix five years ago, citing crime and a lack of consumer demand.
The director of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, Michael Dembeck, said robberies have become far less frequent on the island — the poorest in the three-island chain — while adding that safety concerns were "overblown" by the cruise ship industry back in 2002.
"I think the entire community has become aware and very cognizant of the importance of combating crime," Dembeck said from the St. Croix town of Christiansted. "There is a real commitment here to keeping our streets safe."
Cruise ship cancellations were estimated to cost roughly $50 million a year in lost revenues in St. Croix, which went from hosting about 230,000 passengers a year to a couple thousand from lines that made short nighttime stops to refuel.
Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson Doty said the Disney stopovers will be a significant boon for St. Croix, which has long stretches of scenic coastline, Danish facades and historic sites including plantation ruins that were once home to U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton. The Walt Disney Co. launched its highly popular Florida-based cruise line in 1998.
"We've been aggressively working with the cruise lines and the police department to address any concerns about safety," she said during a Tuesday phone interview. "And we have been getting very positive feedback from visitors."
The U.S. Caribbean territory's governor, John deJongh Jr., said the introduction of St. Croix visits by Disney was an important first step.
"St. Croix is poised to become a port of call for other cruise lines as well," said deJongh from Miami, where he plans to meet later this week with representatives of other Florida-based lines to increase traffic to the island.
The United States purchased St. Croix in 1917 from Denmark along with St. Thomas and St. John — the other two islands in the U.S. Caribbean territory of roughly 110,000 people.