The issue of geo-tourism dominated conversation as the Tourism Department’s four-day “visioning” forum came to a close Thursday.
The session was held at the University of the Virgin Islands’ St. Croix campus with representatives from St. John and St. Thomas participating via videoconference. Ideas raised at the forum will now be used to write a rolling five-year plan for developing the tourism industry in the territory.
As the session began, the room was crowded with geo-tourism proponents. The forum moderator had to extend the discussion period for this topic by a full hour to accommodate everyone who wished to speak.
Geo-tourism is a form of tourism that stresses cultural and historical resources to provide visitors with an experience that is authentic to the people and place they are visiting.
“Geo-tourism isn’t trying to stop the clock and freeze a place in time,” said Nate Olive of the Ridge to Reef farm. “In fact geo-tourism is about development. It’s about smart development that is upholding the integrity of the environment, the culture, the aesthetics and the well-being of the people.”
Frandelle Gerard, executive director of Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, stressed the potential for economic gains. She told the crowd that geo-tourism is the second fastest growing segment of the tourism industry behind cruise ships, and that the tourists it attracts spend more money and stay longer.
She also argued that it would naturally create jobs for native Virgin Islanders. Rather than import entertainers from Las Vegas or cooks from New York, hotels following a geo-tourism model would employ local talent to produce music and food that are true to the territory.
Several presenters warned that if the territory continued to turn to outside developers to build its tourism base, the island risked becoming a generic destination.
Gerard said we have an opportunity “to define ourselves and to provide an experience that connects the traveler with the people and the place. If we continue to develop independent of the people and the place, we lose our identity.”
Specific geo-tourism projects proposed at the forum included creating a food court where only local foods are sold, promoting native crops by turning farms into tourist attractions, and producing more historic walking or driving tours.
During a roundtable discussion on the topic, audience members agreed that it was essential to educate service workers such as hotel staff and taxi drivers on the topic. One participant, Christine Thomas, said it was time for them to stop dwelling on all the negative aspects of the island and paint a more positive picture for tourists they meet.
“They need to stop saying about the crime and the vagabonds and the ragamuffins,” she said.
Issues of technology, niche tourism and promoting attractions were also discussed at the forum.
Scuba diving was singled out as a potential growth area. Molly Buckley of St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures argued that St. Croix in particular was a world class Scuba destination, rivaling the Cayman Islands and Cozumel in quality.
“The major destinations cannot boast that a diver can dive a wall, a wreck, a reef and a pier in one single day,” she said. “This can and does happen on St. Croix.”
Throughout the day, members of the audience raised concerns about the state of the territory’s infrastructure.
During the discussion on technology, a St. John participant said her villa business suffered due to disruptions in her internet service. Visitors want to be assured that they can check their work email or attend a videoconference while on-island, she said, adding that if we can’t guarantee them a stable connection, they’ll go elsewhere.
Pot holes, traffic congestion and taxi rates were all mentioned during the discussion on promoting local attractions, with audience members arguing that sometimes the greatest hurdle to growing their business is literally getting tourists there.
One participant suggested an easy project that could be done is simply to ensure that all roads in the territory have a centerline painted on them.
Coordination was another common theme. Several small business owners cited the need to work more closely together. Several times during the session, people suggested making a comprehensive online calendar of events to ensure that businesses did not accidently schedule large events on the same day.
At the end of the day, Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty thanked members of the public for participating in the four-day forum.
“We really appreciate the opportunity to hear what the community has taken the time to share with us,” she said. “Tourism will only work if it works for all of us.”
Videos of the forum sessions can be seen at www.usvitourismplan.com.