“What do you think of the renovations on the Hotel Caravelle?” I asked Beverly Nicholson-Doty. Dumb question; she’s the tourism commissioner, so what could one expect her to say? Still, she gave me a revealing answer, not just because she said “the much-needed upgrade to this boutique property in Christiansted exceeded our expectations,” but because her joyful smile while describing the hotel spoke volumes. Here are some of the other topics we talked about during a private meeting in Manhattan:
Tourism Growth: Overnights in the USVI increased 5.3 percent in 2015 to 38,000 more visitors.
Airlift: In 2015 air service, mostly from the mainland U.S., increased to more than 25,000 seats a week, including 6,000 seats weekly to St. Croix. Starting in June, United will fly four times weekly from Houston.
Zika Virus: “When the CDC travel advisory came out we saw a dip in immediate bookings and some cancellations. That’s leveled out now,” said Nicholson-Doty. Then she mentioned two things to which the press hasn’t paid as much attention: “Unseasonably warm winter has had as much impact on travel as Zika fears. Also, economists have observed that in presidential election years, there’s always a slight dip in travel.”
The USVI can’t do anything about the strange weather in the Northeast or the national fixation on the primaries, but it can fight the Zika virus. “We’re teaching people to eliminate breeding areas for mosquitos, i.e. standing water on their property. But how can we treat natural areas like ponds?” she asked, and then answered her own question. “We introduce larvae to counteract Zika-carrying mosquitos. We’re also handing out information to visitors on how to protect themselves from bites when they arrive at the airport. We give out free repellent bands there, too, and they last for 10 days.”
I asked how an agent should answer a young client who’s concerned about her unborn child’s safety. “Safety and security are the most important factors,” declared Nicholson-Doty. “If someone is expecting or plans to be expecting, she should talk to her doctor or follow the CDC rules.”
The Outlook: In spite of Zika, the warm winter in the Northeast (parts of Canada, too), and the millions of Americans who are mesmerized by the political circus, Nicholson-Doty is optimistic that 2016 will turn out well. “Remember,” she said, “shoulder- and off-season travel are so much bigger than they used to be, especially for families.”
Festival Growth: Nicholson-Doty breaks into a smile again when she talks about Dine VI, a St. Croix culinary festival that debuted in 2015. Was it successful enough to merit a repeat? Indeed, it was such a success that this fall, Oct. 27- Nov. 12, the festival will expand to St. Thomas and St. John. Look for updates at the Restaurant Week website. For more information, go to visitusvi.com.