It's a backyard tourism boon for the often-overlooked U.S. territory in the Caribbean, where more Americans are flocking. USVI's successful Covid-control could also lead to the first use of in-country vaccine certificates to revive carnival later this month — while tackling local vaccine resistance.
In an ordinary tourism year, the visitor revenue numbers that the U.S. Virgin Islands is experiencing would be great, particularly after a rebound from 2017 twin hurricanes. In the middle of a pandemic year, however, they are extraordinary — perhaps as extraordinary as the territory’s overlooked ability to keep Covid infections well below five percent.
In 2020, the USVI received 415,749 air arrivals or just a 35.1 percent reduction from 2019. By contrast, the rest of the Caribbean experienced 65.5 percent stayover decline.
Hotels are currently at over 90 percent occupancy, according to the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, and average daily rates climbed 43.3. percent in 2020. February 2021 hotel tax revenues reached $1.85 million or only a 28 percent decline from $2.5 million in February 2020.
Being a U.S. territory and having a 1.5 percent Covid positivity rate has given the archipelago even more appeal among vaccinated American travelers seeking to escape the mainland in search of beaches and nature, while facing fewer restrictions upon return. A recent TripAdvisor Spring travel survey revealed that the U.S. Virgin Islands occupied three of the top 10 spots for the fastest growing destinations for Americans. They include St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
To boot, as of last month, vaccine tourism is on the rise — an unintended consequence of tourists discovering easy jab access in the first American jurisdiction to open vaccination to the general population.
USVI Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte said it was “a mixed reaction” when news reports last month touted the ability to receive jabs in the Virgin Islands while on vacation.
“We are not marketing for vaccine tourism seekers — our objective is to reconnect with paradise, have fun while on vacation,” said Boschulte, adding that it wasn’t turning them away either as long as supplies were available for locals.
“We are like many African American or Caribbean American people that are a little hesitant to take the vaccine, so we don’t want to have a situation where, because our usage levels are lower than expected, that our allocations into the future get impacted.”
Vaccinated tourists ultimately provide an extra layer of protection for residents — and an extra boost to the tourism economy as a result of prolonged stays. Jabs aside, the archipelago’s U.S. flag advantage is boosting USVI’s tourism industry.
“We do believe the overnight success that we see now is going to extend into the summer and into the winter season, and into the foreseeable future,” said Boschulte, noting that a lot of the travelers the USVI was now receiving was a direct result of the pandemic. “It’s a U.S. territory — your cell phone, your health card, your ATMs work here so if you did happen to get sick and stuck, you feel better to get home.”
Flight Capacity Ahead of 2019 Levels
As of April 2021, the USVI is averaging 27 flights a day into St. Thomas from the mainland, and six into St. Croix, originating from all corners of the U.S., including Boston, New York, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Florida.
A slew of increased airlift to the Virgin Islands is planned for the summer, including 20 percent more American Airlines seats to St. Croix.
“We are a little ahead of where we were [high season, pre-Covid] and that is a very big mark for us,” Boschulte said. What used to be an average of 28,000-29,000 seats a week into St Thomas is currently at 31,000 seats, while St. Croix has just over 9,000 plus seats a day compared to a previous 7,800-8,100.
“So both districts are ahead of where we were in the best of times pre-hurricane season, in terms of airlift into the territory, which is the driver of our economy right now because we have not had cruise ships.”
Skyrocketing Demand Shape Marketing Plans
For the first time in years, the U.S. Virgin Islands ranks at the top in terms of Caribbean travel demand, from load factor to revenue per available room and occupancy.
Given the predicted blockbuster summer ahead for the US leisure traveler, USVI would take advantage of its foothold in tourism recovery to market aggressively for the 2021-2022 winter season. Boschulte said that the rest of the Caribbean region was likely to be more fully open than it is now by the winter season, signaling competition ahead for the USVI.
This has meant in-person marketing activities in Texas so far, and in the northeast in coming months, including the tri-state Washington D.C. area.
High demand is also reflected in short-term rentals. Boschulte noted that the sharing economy allowed USVI to rebound from the 2017 hurricanes as well as handle the pandemic’s tourism surge on the archipelago. To date, not all hotels have recovered from the twin hurricanes and some properties remain under renovation. “There’s no way we could sustain that type of demand if we didn’t have the sharing economy.”
In 2019, Airbnb room occupancy tax collections totaled $2,647,431 or a 94.9 percent gain from the prior year. USVI Department of Tourism said 2020 numbers were not yet available.
“It’s getting to the point where you can ask your price because people can’t rent without you,” Renee Petrillo said, owner of Rent Renee!, a virtual assistant service that moved into cleaning for short-term rentals. “The turnover has been really insane. I’ve gone to this because that’s where the money is.”
A subset of the sharing economy is yacht charters, as more companies such as The Moorings relocate to the USVI. According to the department of tourism, 2020-2021 marine revenue numbers are forecasted to show deep growth, amounting to annual direct and indirect contributions for all USVI-based charter yachts of an estimated $88 million, compared to $45 million in 2019.
Vaccine Certificates Could Bring Back Events — and Boost Uptake
Just as Israel is requiring vaccine certificates for access to indoor restaurants and activities, the USVI is considering adopting a similar approach for its live entertainment events. It could become the first destination in the Caribbean region to require vaccine certificates to help restart events and festivals, which are a critical part of the cultural fabric and a USVI tourism revenue boost.
“I do believe that is a very likely possibility if only to use as a marketing tool to get more people to get vaccinated,” Boschulte said, noting the example of the upcoming USVI’s carnival in St. Thomas, at the end of April.
Although scheduled as a one-day virtual event this year, Boschulte said that USVI is also contemplating a vaccinated in-person masked Carnival fete for 150 people per capacity rules. And you only can come in if you’re verified to be vaccinated, so you can’t even buy a ticket to come if you’re not vaccinated.”
This would allow some return of live entertainment in the USVI and the Caribbean region. It would also give an incentive to the younger crowds to vaccinate.
“What we’re trying to do is get them to say, hey, you’re telling me that I may be able to hang out in May and June if I get vaccinated?” Boschulte said. “We know that we have segments of our young local population – 30 and below — that are not signed up to get vaccinated.”
Signs of vaccine certificate requirements have also popped up in sports events. “The USVI soccer federation recently held a match [on March 27, 2021] and they were allowing 200 spectators but every spectator had to produce a vaccine card,” Rob DeRocker said, a marketing consultant and homeowner on St. Croix.
A Future Reduced Dependence on Tourism
Last month, the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority unveiled the territory’s new future economic strategy or Vision 2040 Plan. One of its most startling features is that despite the visitor industry contributing an estimated 60 percent to the USVI gross domestic tourism product, tourism is listed last among future goals that otherwise focus on agriculture, blue economy, healthcare and renewable energy, among others,
“One of the major tenets of that study was to find ways to become less dependent on tourism,” Boschulte said, noting that part of that government decision was the result of the pandemic delaying the restart of cruise tourism, which used to make up 1.4 million arrivals into St. Thomas, as well as the 2017 hurricanes.
“Our focus has pivoted heavily toward overnight guests and the marine traveler, away from cruise.”
The plan revealed that day trippers represented 80 percent of tourists to USVI with only 37 percent of expenditures, whereas longer-stay tourists accounted for 20 percent of visitors and 63 percent of revenue. As a result, the USVI plans to push for a more sustainable tourism model focusing on experiential tourism and long term travelers.
At a weekly press briefing on Tuesday, USVI Governor Albert Bryant, Jr. said its administration went back to look at the data on vaccinated people, and that less than six percent put down a non-local address. Bryant said that vaccine availability has not been affected and remained available to anyone above the age of 16.
“If you’re from Dominican Republic, if you’re from Haiti or wherever you’re from, you don’t have your papers — you don’t need them … you’re fully safe, no immigration concerns, we just want to make sure that everyone in our community is safe.”
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Photo credit: Tourism on U.S. Virgin Islands is well ahead of recovery, with a bigger boon ahead. cdwheatley / Getty Images