New Rules for Charters and Small Cruise Ships Navigating Virgin Islands Waters


The British Virgin Islands Cruising and Home Permit Act, 2021 was passed in October 2021, replacing the Cruising and Home Permit Act (Cap203). This new piece of legislation regulates charter boat owners and small cruise ships if they wish to operate in the waters of the Virgin Islands and provides new permit provisions and fees for home-based and foreign-based charter boats. The Act is designed to increase and enhance charter options in the Virgin Islands and now allows small cruise ships to begin and end their cruise at designated home ports in the BVI. The penalties for non-compliance of obtaining a permit and paying applicable fees before cruising is steep.

Definitions and Duties

A charter boat is defined in the new Act as any vessel offered for hire, with or without a crew, for the conveyance of passengers for a particular period of time and any period of time, and any boat conveying for payment or reward.

The Act states that every charter boat owner has a duty to carry a valid Cruising Permit at all times whilst cruising the Virgin Islands territorial sea. As defined in the Act, the Cruising Permit is “a written instrument authorizing the master or person in charge of any charter boat to cruise in the Territory.” Boat owners can obtain the permit from the Commissioner of Customs (the Commissioner), or any person authorized by the Commissioner to issue such permit.

The Act also defines a “home-based vessel” as a charter boat registered in the Virgin Islands, having an established base of operations in the Virgin Islands, and managed by a company registered in the Virgin Islands for a period of five months or more in any twelve-month period. A “foreign-based” vessel is any charter boat that is not a home-based charter boat. These classifications govern the fees charged to obtain permits. (See below for a fee chart.)

Notably, Cruising Permit fees are applicable to friends and guests of the charter boat owner, while the owner’s immediate family members are exempt.

Small Cruise Ship Home Port Permits

The new Act now makes it possible for small cruise ship owners whose vessels are not registered in the Virgin Islands to home port in the Virgin Islands, with conditions. A small cruise ship is characterized as a vessel with a carrying capacity of not more than 500 passengers but no less than 13.

The Home Port Permit is issued by the Director of the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry and authorizes the master or a person in charge of a small cruise ship to use the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Cruise Pier or any other port in the Virgin Islands as home port.

As with other permits, the Home Port Permit is issued for a specific period and the owner of the ship or authorized agent must carry a valid Home Port Permit at all times

Obligations Under the Act

The Commissioner will maintain a record of every home-based charter boat, foreign-based vessel, and small cruise ship.

The Commissioner also has a right to examine and take copies of all records, correspondence, and documents relating to the number of persons accommodated on charter boats and small cruise vessels.

As mentioned above, the charter boat owner is obligated to carry a valid Cruising Permit at all times while cruising. Should the owner choose to appoint an agent to act on his or her behalf they must notify the Commissioner in writing of such appointment, and that agent assumes all obligations of the boat owner.

A foreign-based charter boat owner who wishes to host passengers and cruise within the territorial sea is obligated to notify the Commissioner 14 days before cruising. However, if the boat is regularly engaged in cruising within the territorial sea, the owner must notify the Commissioner of its intent by November 1st of each year, or by any other date the Commissioner specifies.

Charter boat and small cruise ship owners or operators must also submit to the Commissioner each boat’s details for the record, in the prescribed form, and must maintain records of charters and fees paid, as per the Act’s regulations.

Exemptions under the Act for Charter Vessels

The Act designates several important and useful exemptions for charter vessels, as follows.

Where a charter boat is 24 meters or more in length, registered in the Virgin Islands, managed by a company registered in the Virgin Islands, and carrying the owner’s immediate family members on board, it is exempt from paying Cruise Permit fees.

The owner of a Virgin Islands charter vessel managed by a registered BVI company with an established base of operations in the Virgin Islands for a period of five months or more in any twelve-month period but is not registered in the Virgin Islands may be permitted to pay an annual registration exemption fee of US $950 to the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry.

The Commissioner may exempt a charter boat from fees or authorize repayment of fees paid if that vessel is participating in a regatta, tournament, or similar activity organized by a club or organization.

The Commissioner may exempt a charter boat or cruise ship whose capacity exceeds 100 passengers and has on board a Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) approved overnight accommodation from payment of fees for the first twenty-four hours of voyage.

Also, charter boats engaged on direct voyages originating in a foreign port and terminating in a Virgin Islands port with no continuing legs, or a voyage originating in a Virgin Islands port with no prior internal legs and terminating in a foreign port, may be exempted from fees by the Commissioner.

With the approval of the Minister of Finance and the Financial Secretary, the Commissioner may waive, remit, or refund the whole or part of cruising permit fees in respect of cruising in the territory.

Notably, a ferry boat as defined under section 2 of the British Virgin Islands Port Authority Act, 1990, is not be subject to the provisions of the new Act.

2022 Fee Schedule

Classification Fees per person per day (USD)
Home-based charter boats


Foreign-based charter boats


Home port small cruise ship


Approved cruise ship









Classification Annual/Cruise Fee
Home Port fee (annual)


Special Permit fee (per cruise)





Penalties for non-compliance of the Act’s requirements are as follows.

  • Any charter boat owner who fails to obtain a valid cruising permit is liable on summary conviction to a fine of US $5,000.
  • Any owner of a small cruise ship or cruise ship who fails to obtain a valid cruising permit is liable on summary conviction to a fine of US $5,000.
  • Both of these offences may be compounded. When compounded, the owner will pay a per person fee of US $30 per day for all persons cruising on the vessel as long as that offence continues, but not to exceed seven days, as the Commissioner may allow. The compounding effect of the offence does not apply to an owner or agent previously convicted of this offence or who has on two previous occasions compounded the same offence.
  • Any person who fails to comply with or contravenes any provisions of the Act, where no penalty is provided, is liable on summary conviction of a fine of $500.

The new Act’s requirements are fairly straightforward and it is critical that all vessels comply in order to maintain a safe and organized cruising experience in the territory’s waters. The Virgin Islands is known internationally for having one the best sailing waters in the Caribbean with line of sight for each destination a natural beauty and bounty that sailors and guests, far and wide, repeatedly choose. The Act continues to be relevant because it has been part of an effort to boost maritime competition and stimulate the BVI economy. The time and attention paid by maritime governance agencies to ensure safe and pleasant sailing affirms the territory’s commitment to protecting vessel owners, passengers, and the Virgin Islands waters.


The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal counsel in obtaining these permits or in any other Virgin Islands maritime matters, please contact the author, A. Hermia Tench, at +1 284-393-5800 or

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