Controversy Pits V.I. Taxi Association Against Hotels, Destination Managers

When travelers arrive in the V.I., whether tourists visiting the islands or locals returning home, their first encounter is usually with a taxi driver at Cyril E. King Aiport on St. Thomas.

Before a recent decision on a V.I. Superior Court case filed by the V.I. Taxi Association, many hotels — including both St. John resorts — had their own taxi drivers meet and transport their guests.

The Superior Court decision confirmed the V.I. Taxi Association has exclusive rights to the St. Thomas airport, and declared hotels can no longer provide their own transportation from the airport unless guests have pre-arranged plans and a voucher to prove it.

Decision Hurts Economy
A number of hotels and destination management companies are fighting the decision, saying it will hurt the large incentive market travel industry.

“What they are trying to do is force everyone to use the V.I. Taxi Association and their taxi drivers and procedures,” said Tom Cromwell, vice president of St. Thomas-based Island Meetings and Incentives, Inc. “There are four companies like ourselves that handle large groups coming into the territory. We can be greatly impacted by this decision.”

Large corporations across the globe use incentive travel to motivate their sales teams, and reward them with inclusive trips to various destinations. This type of travel comprises a large percentage of the overall visitors to the V.I., according to Cromwell.

“These groups add up to one-third of all hotel business,” he said. “This decision will hurt the hotels first and then trickle down and hurt the overall economy here.”

Independent Operators Ensure Service
Island Meetings and other destination management groups and hotels use independent taxi operators for their travelers, Cromwell explained.

“We work with various other taxi associations on the island,” he said. “By working with independent operators, we are allowed to work together with them to meet the needs of our clients.”

As individuals know, a person traveling from the St. Thomas airport to Red Hook can ride in a taxi that stops at a number of hotels before reaching the final destination.

This type of service is not acceptable to large groups of incentive travelers, said Cromwell.

“We need to be able to put our guests into their own private vehicles and send them on their way,” he said. “Our independent drivers abide by the standards that we need to meet for our clients.”

The only way travelers can use independent taxis is if they have the pre-paid and pre-arranged vouchers.

Vouchers Are Unrealistic
“If we have our group of people fly in here and don’t use V.I. Taxi Association taxis, then each one of the people has to have this coupon,” Cromwell said. “Those things cannot happen.”

“If you have 200 couples flying down from all over the U.S. and the world, you need to mail a coupon to each individual and make sure that they bring it to the airport,” Cromwell added. “That logic is just not all the way thought through.”

Caneel Bay Resort faces a similar situation with their arriving guests, who are used to being greeted by a Caneel Bay taxi and taken to the Caneel Bay ferry on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront or the former V.I. National Park dock in Red Hook, St. Thomas.

The difference is that Caneel Bay guests do pre-arrange and pre-pay for their taxi rides from the airport, and should therefore be exempt from the ruling, according to general manager Rik Blyth.

Following Regulations
“We feel that we are following the taxi franchise agreement,” Blyth said. “Our guests’ transportation are all pre-arranged and pre-paid. I just don’t understand the ruling.”

Caneel Bay has been using the same taxi drivers for years, Blyth added.

“We have taxi drivers who have worked for the hotel for 25 years — the same guys,” he said. “Its criminal to think that they would be put out of business because of a monopoly at the airport.”

The Westin Resort and Villas also uses a personal ferry service. Both Graeme Davis, the Starwood Hotels’ area managing director for South Florida and the Caribbean and Matt Balcik, the Westin St. John hotel manager, were off-island and could not be reached for comment.

Although the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs (DLCA) regulates the island’s taxi association, the department was not a party to the lawsuit, according to Commissioner Andrew Rutnik. The commissioner did share his thoughts on the issue at a mid-July V.I. Senate hearing.

Challenging Issue
“One of the most challenging issues that currently is dividing the taxi industry in St. Thomas is the legislated franchise that the V.I. Taxi Association has at the Cyril E. King Airport,” Rutnik said at the hearing. “The ill-conceived 1986 legislation that awarded exclusive rights to carry all passengers arriving at the airport to the V.I. Taxi Association, excluding certain pre-paid arrangements, infringes not only on the rights of passengers but also other taxi operators.”

Detriment to Tourism Industry
“The type of service provided by this legislated arrangement has been the source of numerous complaints from both tourists and locals alike,” the commissioner continued. “The enforced shuttle service or costly personal taxi is a detriment to our tourism industry and an insult to our local travelers.” The DLCA Commissioner said he is not against franchises.

“I have no argument against franchises for exclusive rights at our ports or airports, but they should be designed for the comfort and convenience of the customer, not the franchise,” he said.

The whole franchise should be re-tooled, according to Cromwell.

Time To “Wisen Up”
“Someone has to wisen up,” he said. “If we are forced to do what they are telling us we have to do, our clients won’t come here. There are other places they can go, and they will.”

Both Island Meetings and Caneel Bay Resort plan to appeal the V.I. Superior Court’s decision regarding the V.I. Taxi Association’s franchise at the Cyril E. King airport.