In the aftermath of a tragedy – a 14-year-old girl, a passenger on Carnival Victory, was shot to death on the island of St. Thomas yesterday — people are understandably wondering if that Caribbean island is no longer a paradise.
Actually, it hasn’t been paradise for a long time.
A new post on the St. Thomas Blog, which generally focuses on the island’s charms, sums it up well: “Today is the saddest day of my residency in St. Thomas because today I can no longer tell tourists, readers, locals and anyone else that St. Thomas is safe. It’s not. Criminals aren’t just killing criminals, they’re killing innocents.”
St. Thomas (along with other Caribbean isles with the same urban problems as many of the world’s big cities) hasn’t been safe in eons. This is not a secret, especially not among cruise line executives, politicians, tourism officials and residents. In a statement reacting to yesterday’s gang shootout, the U.S.V.I. governor John P. De Jongh, Jr. notes that “What we are experiencing today is the result of many years of neglect which we can no longer tolerate. Everyone must rise up against those who continue to wage violent crime on our streets.”
Fighting words? Not exactly. But it does seem that the citizens of St. Thomas feel powerless to effect change.
That’s exactly how I’d feel if I lived there now. That’s exactly how I felt when in fact I did live on the island – way back in 2000 – when gangs ran rampant, when random violence was common, when the only time you really felt safe was when you were hanging out in tourist areas. Yesterday’s tragic turn of events tells us now that you’re not safe even in those places.
Should cruise lines pull out of St. Thomas altogether? It’s a fair question. Would you want to go there now? This isn’t meant to punish some really fine folks who live there, who put their hearts not only into what makes it potentially such a beautiful vacation destination but also into improving the community in which they live. But the U.S. Virgin Islands needs to get this house in order.
Ironically, one of the most positive memories I have of my time there came about after a young man was shot and paralyzed from the waist down while in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’ main city (and arguably the premier duty free shopping mecca in the Caribbean). Islanders reacted by volunteering to host “Bringing Peace to Paradise,” a music festival that aimed to motivate residents to fight crime – and provide the former surfer with funds needed to pay for surgeries and, hopefully, to help him walk again. The powerful spirit of the volunteers, who came together from so many different life paths and offered such a variety of skills, created a glow of goodwill that penetrated into some pretty dark spots. At least for a short while.
But without lasting peace, you can’t have paradise.
I ask again: should cruise lines pull out of St. Thomas? Should you vote with the power you have – to choose Caribbean cruises where St. Thomas is not on the itinerary?
Perhaps it would be the wakeup call that the island needs to make a significant and lasting charge against the runaway violence that plagues it now. Perhaps the local leadership would be wise to understand why St. Croix, the largest American virgin island, and one replete with attractions, gorgeous scenery, great surfing, pristine beaches and charming small towns, went from being a popular cruise port to one that, because of crime that wasn’t battled, has become almost nonexistent.