Jan. 3, 2002 – Santa wafted in on private jets and private yachts over the holidays, doing a much better job of filling major hotels on St. Thomas and St. John than a year ago. And that wasn't all.
He also sent some of those arriving on the jets not to hotels, time-shares and villas, but to take a spin on the sumptuous private yachts awaiting them at the St. Thomas waterfront or at Crown Bay Marina.
A year ago, Americans were still reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The territory did better than many other tourist destinations simply by being under the U.S. flag, which made many stateside travelers feel more secure.
This holiday season, the Virgin Islands held its own, with more hotel bookings up, more air arrivals, more cruise ship calls and more private jet traffic that a year ago.
Business at Bohkle International Airways, which handles the private jets at Cyril E. King Airport, is up about 10 percent over last year, local manager Roy Romney said on Friday. His assistant, Jenelle Forbes, said they have handled about 30 to 40 aircraft in the past five days. "It's a big increase, and we have had to close off sections of certain areas of the airport to park everybody," she said.
For the last two weeks, the north section of the airport, where private jets park, has been filled to overflowing with small aircraft and larger Boeing 727 and 737 jets. Romney said Bohlke handles an average of about 13 jets a day from November to April. Out of season, it's about eight a day, he said. Bohkle and V.I. Ground Handlers and Alliance Aviation, managed by Dan Tomlinson, handle all the private jet business on St. Thomas. Tomlinson was not available for comment Thursday or Friday.
About half of the passengers coming in on private planes continue on to the British Virgin Islands by sea, Romney said, with time-shares on St. Thomas getting most of the other 50 percent.
The luxury yachts which come to the territory each November or December are a boon to the economy — they take nothing, but leave cash in their wake wherever they go. The crews provision the vessels at local shops and stores — everything from caviar and smoked salmon to cleaning products. They take on fuel, fresh laundry, flowers and liquor, and their clients do some dining ashore.
And when it's time to fly away again, there's more catering to be done. Passengers on the private jets must eat, and most of them with to eat well.
Ask Becky or Ted Luscz, owners of Hook, Line and Sinker restaurant in Frenchtown, who are going into their fourth season catering for private jets. "Our business has gone up at least 100 percent over last season, probably more — if I had time to calculate it," Ted Luscz said.
For now they too busy preparing the meals along with running the restaurant. "You never know what they are going to want, although now we have a better handle on it," Luscz said of the air travelers. "It could be lobster tails or a peanut butter sandwich."
And if there are children on board, it might be a combination of the two. "The kids of the rich and famous eat just like any other kids — chicken fingers and grilled cheese sandwiches," he said.
Luscz has noticed a change in dietary habits of the adults: "They are starting to eat a lighter, healthier diet now — grilled seafood, fresh fruit, salads, wine and not a lot of alcohol. They tend to follow doctors' advice for flying — eating light and drinking lots of water."
With a grin, he added: "If I had a $25 million jet, I'd probably not eat like that, and I'd probably be laid up with gout most of the time."
They have agreed to keep the names of their clients confidential while the VIP's are on island, but Luscz readily cites some who've come and gone: "Sir Richard Branston, the owner of Virgin Airways, was one. Then we had the prime minister of Italy, and a group of almost 100 foreign diplomatic attaches from the Pentagon." Although Luscz communicated with the Pentagon about this group, Washington gave no clue as to what they were up to locally, he said.
Ben Grimes, Federal Aviation Administration operations supervisor at the St. Thomas airport control tower, said overall air traffic to the island this season is up. "Next week I will have figures for the year," he said Friday. A year ago, traffic was down about 18 percent from 2000. "We picked up a lot during the holidays, too," Grimes said.
Beverly Nicholson, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, was upbeat and happy to report. "It's been an extremely positive holiday season," she said. "Most of the larger hotels were close to capacity — if not, indeed, sold out. Even some properties not traditionally filled at Christmas were filled, like the Windward Passage Holiday Inn."
Nicholson added: "It's a good feeling. I hope it carries through."
Noting the blustery winter the mainland Northeast is experiencing, she said her hopes are up for a strong season to continue. The threat of war with Iraq and the rough weather could turn out to be boons for the territory, she said.
On St. John, Caneel Bay Resort had a "very successful holiday season," managing director Brian Young said. "We were sold out this year, and last year, and the year before that." He added: "We are very fortunate — about 90 percent of our traffic is return guests." He said one told him, "It's just like winter camp."
Folks who can afford Caneel Bay or the territory's other upscale hotels are insulated from the practical financial worries of people who think of a Caribbean vacation not as "winter camp" but as something they save up for all year.
David Yamada, Renaissance Grand Beach Resort general manager, said he was happy with the holiday season. "Holidays are up," he said. "This last week has been pretty busy for us, much better than last year, which was terrible following Sept. 11.:
He estimated that holiday business at the resort was "5 to 10 percent better this year; we were about at about 90 percent capacity." His projection for the immediate future is that occupancy "will drop down to about 60 percent after the holidays, but then it should be back up to about 70 percent."
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