Tourism in the United States Virgin Island (USVI) is set to increase in the coming months as that territory bounces back from the effects of monster storms Irma and Maria, which left a trail of destruction and despair in their paths in September 2017.
Besides an approximately $8 billion of ongoing investment in the three islands – St Croix, St Thomas and St John – the island of St Thomas has welcomed a non-stop LIAT flight from Antigua, which is expected to help boost visitor arrivals significantly from the region.
Commissioner of Tourism of the USVI Beverly Nicholson-Doty said prior to the storm, arrivals from the region numbered around 30,000 to 40,000 per year, making it the USVI’s second largest source market behind the US.
“We think that LIAT is important. It is a connector throughout the region. So LIAT returning to the Virgin Islands is so important… in terms of visitors coming to the territory and we are talking about Caribbean people visiting each other,” she said.
“The other part that is extremely important is the fact that the Virgin Islands is a [melting pot] where we have people from all over the Caribbean. So LIAT’s role is extremely important because it doesn’t just connect visitors to our territory for vacation, it connects families,” she explained.
The commissioner was speaking with journalists from the region during a recent press trip to the USVI to experience the return of the LIAT service and to see how the island has been bouncing back since the major hurricanes.
Before the hurricanes the USVI suffered a major blow when LIAT suspended its service between Antigua and St Croix in March 2017, and Antigua and St Thomas in June the same year.
Flights between Antigua and St Thomas resumed on July 2 this year with three weekly flights – Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The USVI depends heavily on tourism and like its infrastructure that industry was not spared the effects of the storm. In fact, there are still signs that St Thomas and St John still have a lot of rebuilding to do as evident in the closure of the hospital, the swamp in St John and some hotels in St Thomas.
However, Nicholson-Doty said the return of some events were already showing strong bookings and should result in several million dollars coming into the economy. This, she said, was an indication that since the storms last year the healing process had begun.
“In terms of the economy, we haven’t totally quantified what the losses are. We know that in the hotel and tourism industry we can tell from tax collections that are correlated to the overnight visitors that we are down about 55 per cent. So, in the overnight category we had a significant decrease,” said Nicholson-Doty.
“We will see more hotels reopening in the first quarter of 2019, but we recognize that through mid-2020, we are going to see hotels reopening every six to 18 months,” she added.
She also pointed out that the US territory was investing some $8 billion across the board.
“It includes housing, hospitals and schools, road and overall infrastructure improvement including the burial of electrical lines. This tells you the magnitude of the devastation of two back-to-back category 5 storms,” she said.
The cruise industry bounced back within about two months of the storms and is now fully back in swing.
However, about 50 per cent of the rooms of some of the traditional, large hotel properties on the island of St Thomas remain closed.
But the tourism commissioner said there was somewhat of an explosion in the shared economy, which provided some cushion.
“[The storm] has had a very real impact in terms of our ability to accommodate overnight visitors. However, one of the things we have seen, and Airbnb just came out with a report, is that the Virgin Islands just had a 600 per cent increase year-over-year in its Airbnb and sharing economy,” she reported.
“So where we lost inventory in traditional hotels you have seen the sharing economy increased. [It] has really been a bridge that has allowed visitors to come back to the territory,” added Nicholson-Doty.
Throughout the trip to and from Barbados, St Kitts, St Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago, all reporters experienced on time service from LIAT, something that has long been a concern for travellers.
And with fewer complaints about delays by the airline and a noticeable improvement in customer service, LIAT’s Corporate Communications Manager Shavar Maloney said this was an indication that the cash-strapped regional carrier has changed course for the better.
In fact, Maloney said he was satisfied that the airline was running a better on time performance, less luggage was going missing and customer service was constantly improving.
He gave the assurance that this trend would continue.
“We have had customer service training and coaching which is ongoing. So a lot of people now are experiencing the new LIAT,” he said.
“It is in the statistics. We have acknowledged that there were issues in the past and we have had to step back and fix those issues. Our on time performance so far for the year is trending above 80 per cent and the industry standard is 85 per cent. For some months we have actually ranked number one in Latin America and the Caribbean and we have been in the top five for the last few months,” said Maloney.
According to Flightstats.com, an independent online data service company focusing on commercial aviation, LIAT was ranked 2nd for the month of October in Latin America and the Caribbean for its on time performance.
For the month of September, the airline was ranked 3rd, moving from 6th position in July and 7th in August.
In relation to the restoration of flights between Antigua and St Thomas, Maloney said the response has been “good” so far.
“I think we have seen more connection between the islands because when we suspended the service in 2017, a lot of persons were asking ‘how are we going to get there now?’. We do acknowledge there were some issues with LIAT at that time and they have improved. So persons are really enjoying the service,” said Maloney.
“The numbers are looking good. There is always room for improvement and that is part of the reason we have partnered with the USVI Department of Tourism to ensure that persons know that the service is available and they are aware of what to do in the Virgin Islands,” he said.
Maloney said the load factor for the airline was just over 80 per cent between July and August this year and that LIAT was working closely with the USVI to ensure that service is sustained all year round. (MM)