Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands // © 2018 U.S. Virgin Islands
Feature image (above): The U.S. Virgin Islands welcomes visitors to its islands. // © 2018 Flickr Creative Commons user leewb3
In September, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), which is made up of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, suffered a double blow from back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria. While other parts of the Caribbean are still working on restoring necessities such as water and power, the USVI has made major strides in welcoming back visitors.
Last month, Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism for USVI, stopped by the TravelAge West office to discuss the current state of tourism to the islands.
When discussing the recent hurricanes, how important is it for travel agents to understand the geography of the Caribbean?
People often don’t realize that the distance between the Bahamas and Barbados is the same as the distance between New York and California. So, if there’s an event that happens in one part of the Caribbean, it doesn’t necessarily mean that other areas are impacted.
That said, the USVI was affected by both hurricanes Irma and Maria. Irma hit St. Thomas and St. John, and Maria had a bigger impact on the southwest corner of St. Croix. So, even from one storm to the next — or one island to the next — the results can be very different.
In fact, even on the same island, there can be different outcomes. For example, the Frederiksted area of St. Croix, in the southwestern corridor, saw damage, but the eastern end of the island, near Christiansted, was up and running soon after the storm. It just depends on the path of the hurricane.
In general, what was the damage to the accommodations in the territory?
It really was hit and miss. Some properties saw little or no damage, while others are going to be closed for some time. On St. Thomas and St. John, there will be some major hotels out of service for most or all of 2018.
I recommend agents visit www.USVIupdate.com for the latest information. This site has become the portal where people can continue getting updates. We’re also hoping to add an area to the site that is dedicated to hotels and what they have open, their availability and other information.
In addition, we’re actively using our social media channels to update people, especially Facebook and Instagram. We have committed to only using post-storm imagery. We want to exceed the expectations of our visitors, so we want to be very honest about what is occurring and how it looks right now.
What is the visitor experience like these days?
Watersports and restaurants all came back very quickly, which means the cruise industry was able to return soon after the storms. We had our first cruise call in St. Thomas on Nov. 3. Our cruise visitor numbers in November were down about 50 percent, then they were back to 90 percent in December. We should be back to even by the beginning of this year.
Some beaches didn’t fare as well, but nature took care of itself in many cases and most of the beaches are in good shape — some even have more sand than before. Water-based activities, such as yachting and sailing, are doing great.
If someone really doesn’t want to visit until everything is perfect, I would say give us a year. But if someone is looking for a great culinary scene, great shopping, watersports and attractions, those things are all excellent. We respect and appreciate what visitors are looking for and want to be transparent about it all. Most people who have visited post-storm — especially cruisers who generally do an average of two activities during their time on the islands — are very minimally affected to any degree.
By the way, villa rentals and Airbnb rentals are doing well right now. Visitors who in the past may have been curious about what these properties are like are giving them a try. We’ve even had a few destination weddings at these kinds of properties.
Are you seeing a different type of tourism these days?
Yes, voluntourism is very big. There are a lot of programs right now that are focused on relief, but we want to take a holistic look and base our voluntourism programs on sustainability.
For instance, one thing we’re looking at is a program with the Nature Conservancy where visitors do coral restoration. This is a problem that’s a result of the storms as well as overall global warming. We’re also looking at restoring farmland, reforestation, replanting and more. We want people to walk away knowing they have helped out and accomplished something, but on a larger level.
Can visitors, or their agents, set up projects?
Yes. Sometimes a group will have a certain interest or passion, and they want to focus on a specific project. Teachers, for example, might be very interested in the fact that we lost six major schools, and they will want to help us with educational resources. We have a group of doctors coming on vacation, but they also want to help with our medical needs.
So, I think there will be some core programs that are packaged for general visitors, but there will also be one-off projects based on interest.
How is your partnership with the cruise industry?
Cruise lines — along with some of our airline partners — really stepped up and helped when we needed to get visitors back home. And they helped people from the islands with medical care and other needs. They have proved to us that they are with us in good times and bad times. It’s good to know that the partnership is not just when things are perfect.
Plus, cruise lines have been very active partners in our restoration, especially making sure that infrastructure is restored and improved. They wouldn’t bring visitors back to the islands without making absolutely sure that the experience is top-notch.
What do you see for the USVI a year or two from now?
The good news, in general, is that once our resorts rebuild, we will see a lot of practically brand-new properties. Every time we meet with the owner of a hotel, the discussions are about not just rebuilding, but also enhancing the product. We can’t change our geography, so we can expect more storms in the future.
The question is: How do we make sure that everything on the island — both public and private — is built better and smarter than before? I think some of the hotel reopening dates are longer than in the past because owners are taking this opportunity to improve their properties and make the destination even more competitive. We also anticipate seeing new brands.
Some travelers have said to me, “But do they even want us there?” How do you respond to that?
Honestly, if you asked us in October, there would have been some debate. In order for people to be welcoming, we have to make sure they are well. Part of being well is the recovery of the island, so we’ve been very careful, because at no point do we want tourism to impede the overall recovery of the territory. But you can see the transformation in people’s attitudes, and now everyone is saying how great it is to see cruise ships again. And I get asked a lot by locals when we are going to start actively getting people back.
So, you see the transition in our people in terms of our comfort and our welcoming spirit. We want to be transparent and manage visitors’ expectations, but we also want to be in the marketplace explaining not just what’s available today, but what’s on the horizon, because we think we’re going to have an even better and stronger product for many years to come.