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Island crime problems point to trouble in paradise

Times Staff Writer

I like to think of myself as an adventurous traveler, willing to go to wild places where I need to keep my guard up. But having to stay alert to potential dangers is hard work, especially these days. Sometimes all I want is an easy vacation -- like a cruise, which is about the safest, most comfortable way I can think of to see some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

But some of those places aren’t as paradisiacal as they look in brochures. On a Caribbean cruise about 10 years ago, my ship visited St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. There, a cabdriver told me about gang wars in the port town of Charlotte Amalie and warned me about wandering on my own. I lived in New York City then and knew all about watching my back. The idea that I had to worry about crime on lovely St. Thomas made me groan, but I visited without incident.

Caribbean islands are beguiling, so it’s easy to forget that they sometimes harbor trouble. Maybe that’s why I was so surprised to learn recently that three big ships have stopped visiting the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix after nine passengers and crew members on two ships, the Triumph and Destiny, both owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, were robbed or mugged there in the last year.

One of the incidents that caused Carnival, and later Holland America, to pull out of St. Croix occurred Feb. 20, when a couple from the Triumph was robbed at gunpoint on Sandy Point Beach, about two miles south of the town of Frederiksted, where the bigger cruise ships dock.

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The line contacted Virgin Islands authorities even before the Triumph incident because of crimes against other Carnival passengers and crew. By late April, Carnival removed St. Croix from the itineraries of both of its ships that called there. Later, Holland America, a cruise line also owned by Carnival, stopped sending the Zuiderdam there. That leaves just one major cruise line, Celebrity Cruises, that’s calling at St. Croix.

Celebrity spokesman Michael Sheehan said none of the line’s passengers had been affected by crime on St. Croix. The line occasionally reminds passengers to be cautious in certain ports of call but hasn’t issued such cautions for St. Croix, he said. (De la Cruz, the Carnival spokeswomen, said warnings about using caution in some ports of call are left to the discretion of each ship’s cruise director.)

But having to alert visitors to potential dangers in a port “is counterproductive to the experience of having a good time,” said Holland America spokesman Erik Elvejord. “Passengers should feel comfortable enough to enjoy a place, to wander and have a beer in a local pub.”

Crime is not new to St. Croix. The little island, about 1,000 miles south of Miami, is one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, along with St. Thomas and St. John.

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St. Croix’s reputation was first significantly scarred in 1972, when eight people, including four tourists, were slain during a robbery on an island golf course, an incident that has come to be known as the “Fountain Valley massacre.” In some ways, the island never quite recovered.

Last year, there were 30 homicides (12 of those on St. Croix) in the three-island U.S. territory, a per capita rate five times the national average, according to the St. Thomas Source, an online newspaper. (The U.S. Department of Justice said it has not received crime figures from the U.S. Virgin Islands since 1995.) “We have horrific problems down here,” said Michael Bornn, a former tourism commissioner. “But, thank God, they haven’t touched a lot of tourists.”

The U.S.V.I. Police Department did not respond to requests for crime statistics, but Lt. Randolph DeSuza said that none of the murder victims was a tourist; most were involved in local drug and gang violence.

Police Chief Novelle Francis added that recent crimes against cruise ship passengers and crew were “mostly petty.” He said that apprehending criminals who prey on tourists is particularly difficult because cruise visitors tend to report incidents to ship authorities rather than police.

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The ship pullouts mean that St. Croix, already economically depressed, will suffer even more. Celebrity’s 1,950-passenger Constellation will make 23 stops there from November to April 2003. But ship visits during the winter cruising season in the Caribbean will decline 37.8% from the previous year, leaving the island with an estimated $40 million in lost tourist revenue, according to the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce.

St. Croix also is a less appealing stop than shopping mecca St. Thomas, the busiest cruise ship port in the Caribbean.

Since Carnival and Holland America left, surveillance cameras have been installed in the dock areas, the number of tourist-oriented police officers has been increased and a public awareness campaign has been initiated to involve the community in keeping tourists safe, said Police Chief Francis.

I’m skeptical. But I wish St. Croix success in solving its problems, for the sake of islanders and visitors. After all, the last thing I want to do on a Caribbean cruise is watch my back.

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