July 14, 2004 – Increased air arrivals on St. Croix helped boost the territory's May tourism numbers well above those for a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Economic Research director, Lauritz Mills.
American Eagle increased the number of seats available on flights between San Juan and St. Croix by changing to 64-seat aircraft instead of the 27- and 48-seaters they had been flying, Mills said in a release issued this week.
"This is a really big deal," Beverly Nicholson, president of the V.I. Hotel Association, said.
Additionally, Caribbean Sun has been flying planes with 27 and 64 seats between Puerto Rico and the territory since last December, allowing more passengers to connect to St. Croix.
The additional seats coupled with the biweekly charter flights that have been arriving from Denmark since March helped to boost air arrivals to 11,527 this May, up from 9,791 in May 2003 — an increase of 17.7 percent.
"We are just starting to see some build [in airlift] on St. Croix, and I am hearing from some of our members that occupancy is beginning to build," Nicholson said.
Claudia Carrington, who owns Carringtons Inn on St. Croix, said the Danes seem to account for the increase. She said recent Danish guests at the inn observed that the only other tourists they encountered were fellow Danes.
Carrington said she isn't as optimistic as Nicholson, but she did have a wedding last week that filled her entire five-room bed and breakfast establishment. "And this winter was better than last year," she said.
May air arrivals on St. Thomas were up 9.6 percent over May 2003 — totaling 46,759 versus 42,668 a year earlier.
The May hotel occupancy rate in the St. Thomas-St. John district was 69.2 percent, up from 66.2 percent of May 2003. On St. Croix, the occupancy rate was 48.1 percent, up from 42.1 percent in May 2003.
On the cruise ship front, St. Thomas-St. John saw 116,954 visitors in May, up 10.3 percent from May 2003, when 106,055 passengers arrived. On St. Croix, May brought 1,542 visitors by sea; a year earlier there were no cruise ship visitors because no ships called at the island.
Across the territory, a total of 176,782 visitors arrived in May 2004. Air arrivals grew by 11.1 percent to 58,286, and cruise passenger arrivals rose by 11.7 percent for a total of 118,496.
Nicholson said that while both districts are experiencing their usual summer slowdown, the outlook for the 2005 winter season is promising.
Studying a Neighbor's Success
To further fine tune the territory's tourism product, she said, hotel association members will take a close look at what the nearby Dominican Republic is doing to achieve "double digit" yearly increases in visitors. Association members will hold a retreat there to work on the organization's 2005 marketing plan.
While the Dominican Republic offers an array of all-inclusive hotels and has far lower labor and construction costs than the Virgin Islands, Nicholson said, it also offers excellent service. "We have to be ever vigilant as to what we do to maintain service," she said.
Toward that end, the hotel association in conjunction with American Express will offer "service excellence" training in October to members of the hospitality industry and 25 police officers each from St. Thomas-St. John and St. Croix.
"We're hoping they're going to learn how to be nice to visitors," Nicholson said, referring to the targeted police officers. The seminars will be offered in October in the hope of inspiring improvements in service by the start of the winter season.
An Up-and-Down Decade
Bureau of Economic Research tourism statistics for the territory over the last decade make interesting reading. A look at the overall number of annual visitors from 1993 to 2003 shows it took two years after Hurricane Marilyn hit in September 1995 for the numbers to start climbing again after a sharp drop.
In 1993, 2.39 million visitors arrived. The numbers dropped to 1.9 million in 1994, the year before tourism ground to a halt after Marilyn's devastation. The totals slipped to 1.74 million for 1995 and 1.78 million for 1996, when many hotels were undergoing repairs. They climbed back up to 2.1 million in 1997, then slipped back to 1.96 million in 1998 and again 1.96 million in 1999.
In the new millennium, the totals have consistently topped the 2 million threshold even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, severely impacted travel for a time. The territory recorded 2.4 million visitors in 2000, 2.49 million in 2001, 2.34 million in 2002 and 2.39 million — the same number as a decade earlier — last year.
From January through May of this year, a total of 1.28 million visitors arrived — a gain of 10.4 percent over the same period in 2003.
The bureau compiles statistics for the calendar year, not the fiscal year which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.
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