Operating a reliable, convenient ferry service between Tortola and St. Thomas is not rocket science. It is not even ferry science. It is plain common sense.
But despite decades of promises from politicians, regulators and operators, the existing system continues to be a national embarrassment that inconveniences travellers on a daily basis.
The importance of reform is not disputed. Given the difficulty of reaching the territory through Beef Island, the connection to the St. Thomas airport is crucial for residents and for the health of tourism and financial services.
But ferry operators and their regulator, the BVI Ports Authority, have consistently failed to take basic steps to improve the system.
The boats, for instance, should run on time. Instead, they often depart later than scheduled — or, in some cases, not at all.
Ferries should also run regularly throughout the day, ideally leaving Road Town every 1.5 hours or so. Instead, multiple boats often depart around the same time, leaving a gap of several hours before the next one. This arrangement means that travellers with a late afternoon flight frequently have to leave Tortola around 9 a.m. and spend the day (and their money) in St. Thomas.
Additionally, operators should work together to fill in for any company that is unable to run for any reason. Instead, passengers sometimes show up ticket in hand only to learn their boat has been cancelled.
The ferries also should accommodate passengers on late afternoon flights from St. Thomas. But the early-evening ferry proposed last November by the BVI Tourist Board — which recently saw its funding increased by nearly 50 percent — never came to fruition.
Finally, first-time visitors should be able to navigate the ferry system easily by visiting a reliable website. Instead, tourists routinely struggle to understand misleading information posted online by ferry companies, some of which suggest that passengers must buy advance tickets that lock them in to a trip that might not actually be leaving at the promised time.
The causes of such issues are largely twofold.
On the one hand are the ferry companies, whose irresponsible behaviour in the past has included flouting official departure schedules; rearranging trips without notice to best a competitor; racing to a destination; encroaching on a competitor’s branding; and effectively fighting over passengers at ferry terminals.
On the other hand is the BVIPA, which is charged with regulating the ferries. The agency has the power to set schedules and compel companies to follow them. But it has failed to properly do so, at times sidestepping its own regulations and policies and exacerbating the Wild West atmosphere.
It is time for a major change. To that end, the current BVIPA board, which was appointed last June by the new government, should review the history, take charge of the situation, and insist that the agency regulate effectively. Ferry operators, too, must come on board, putting aside longstanding grudges in order to work together for the common good.
Additionally, government leaders here and in the United States VI should make this topic a priority, including adding it to their discussions at the annual inter-VI Council meetings and publicly setting measurable goals for reform.
If the new government wants to demonstrate leadership, reforming the ferry system should be an easy win. In spite of some improvements over the years, the status quo is unacceptable.