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BVI Government Changes Opinion on Port Fee

Fearing it would lose its designation as a top yachting capital, the British Virgin Islands cabinet decided to "indefinitely defer" implementing a controversial harbor fee for any vessel entering or remaining in BVI waters.

Initially slated to go into effect July 1 and pushed back to July 15, the fee would have had a serious impact on the territory’s lucrative yachting industry.

"Cabinet determined that if the BVI were to implement this new fee structure, the territory may have become the most expensive destination in the world for mariners and yachts," Premier Ralph T. O’Neal said in a press release issued July 15. 

The BVI cabinet met in a special session to resolve the matter just days before the A.H. Riise BVI Billfishing Tournament was slated to begin on July 19.

"We also recognised that the fees would have been a deterrent for the some 45 plus yachts already registered to participate in this international event," O’Neal said.  He further explained that the yachting industry is a significant contributor to the local economy and as such, the sector must be safe-guarded against adverse impacts.

"In other words, we may have lost our competitive edge and may not have maintained our status as a very attractive yachting destination," O’Neal said.

The decision to "indefinitely defer" the implementation of the charge came after meetings with marine industry representatives who fought the fee.

"The government received a great number of complaints and representation from local associations and maritime agents, the yachting industry and yachting agents in America and Europe," O’Neal said.

Representatives across the marine industry breathed a sigh of relief when the deferment announcement was made.

"Clearly we’re delighted we’re going to be going back," Steve Black said.

Black runs the Caribbean 1500, a rally for boaters every November from Hampden, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina to Tortola, as well as the Atlantic Cup. This rally departs in May for the return trip from Tortola to Bermuda.

Black said that if the fee went into effect, he’d have to find another destination without such an onerous fee. Last year, 69 boats made the Caribbean 1500 trip, with an estimated half sticking around the BVI for months at a time. A total of 21 left from Tortola in the Atlantic Cup rally.  The organizer said that it would cost boaters nearly $10,000 to spend a year in the BVI.

"That may be a good part of their cruising kitty," Black said, noting that the timing of the proposed fee couldn’t be worse given the stagnant U.S. economy and the high cost of fuel.

Erik Ackerson, who serves as director of the St. Thomas-based V.I. Charteryacht League, suggested that since the BVI is only deferring the implementation of the fee, it was time for the U.S. Virgin Islands to make a concerted marketing effort to convince charter boats to sail around the territory’s waters instead of the BVI.

"There’s a lot to offer in the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. John is absolutely gorgeous," he said.  Additionally, he said it would bring revenue to the U.S. territory.

St. John resident Peter Muilenburg, who sails day charters aboard his 42-foot boat Breath, from St. John to the BVI, said he was unaware that new fees were under consideration.

"But I’d make the tourists pay," he said, indicating he’d pass the fee along to his charter guests.

If the new fees were implemented, vessels would be charged $1.00 per foot, 75 cents per foot and 50 cents per foot of the vessel overall length for the first, second, third, and subsequent days respectively.

The BVI government’s announcement doesn’t mean the threat of a similar fee will never be implemented.

O’Neal said the BVI Cabinet agreed to establish a seven-member focus group to review the fees. Peter Haycraft chairs the group. It also includes local agent Francis David, Acting BVI Tourist Board Chairman Terrance Ford, Ports Authority Managing Director Vincent O’Neal, and Comptroller of Customs Wade Smith. Additionally, Lorraine Stoutt of Caribbean Transport and a representative from the BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association are focus group members. The group is expected to submit its report to Cabinet by September, 2008.

Long time St. John resident Lynda Lohr lives in Coral Bay.  A reporter by trade, she has written for numerous international, national, regional, and local publications as well as travel and news websites.

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