Senators on Thursday pressed officials of the V.I. Tourism Department about the new Division of Festivals and how to increase flights into the territory at a meeting of the Economic Development, Regulations and Agriculture Committee.
Tourism Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Hansen Watley gave the opening testimony for Commissioner Joseph Boschulte, who was off island. She said the department’s marketing strategy is focused on accommodations, airlift and cruise.
Because many of the territory’s traditional accommodations, hotels and resorts have not reopened since the 2017 hurricanes, visitors are renting more Airbnb units. The Ritz-Carlton opens in November, followed by the Frenchman’s Reef Marriott Resort and Spa, Marriott’s Autograph Collection, Noni Beach and Renaissance Carambola and Divi Carina Bay in 2020 on St. Croix, according to Watley.
“This winter season air capacity to St. Croix is ahead of 2017 pre-storm levels, while seat capacity to St. Thomas is projected to approach 90 percent of the pre-storm levels,” Watley said.
Currently, schedules for 2019-2020 include:
– JetBlue Airways from Boston is serving St. Thomas weekly on Saturdays through February 2020 and afterwards a daily flight between Feb. 13 and April 28, 2020.
– American Airlines will fly from Miami to St. Croix three times daily from Nov. 23 through 25 and Nov. 30 through Dec. 2. Charlotte to St. Croix flights will increase from Saturday only to daily flights from Dec. 18 through 24, Dec. 26 through 30 and Jan. 1 through 6. American will offer weekly year-round service on Saturdays from Dallas-Ft. Worth to St. Thomas and from Chicago on Saturdays beginning Dec. 21. A third daily American flight will be added between Miami and St. Thomas from Dec. 18.
– United will serve Chicago to St. Thomas with weekly Saturday flights beginning Nov. 2 and increase to three flights a week from Jan. 7 to March 3.
According to Watley, the DOT is working to increase seat capacity to St. Croix from the northeastern seaboard and from Texas.
Sen. Kurt Vialet said a second American Airlines daily flight from Miami to St. Croix should be a priority for the Department. Sen. Allison DeGazon, committee chairperson, agreed and said that current flights are expensive and the itineraries are long and convoluted.
“The numbers [of passengers] will never be up with these prices and these flights. People are really crying about these flights and these prices,” she said.
DeGazon asked the DOT to submit a report to the committee explaining why airlines only want to expand to St. Thomas.
The new Division of Festivals and the V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute were created within the Tourism Department to be funded through the Legislature and Office of Management and Budget. According to Ian Turnbull, director of Festivals, the division’s budget is $2.7 million with $1.3 million for salaries, which surprised some senators. St. Thomas Festival will receive $540,000, Crucian Christmas Festival will be funded $520,000 and St. John will receive $320,000.
Sen. Athneil Thomas commented that St. Croix and St. Thomas will receive similar amounts but the revenue from the St. Croix event will not be as much as St. Thomas. He also pointed out that the British Virgin Islands funds its carnival $1.3 million with nothing for salaries.
“We are in the hole because $1.4 million goes to salaries right off the bat,” he said.
Turnbull responded that he has been “inundated by volunteers,” especially the millennial population and staff will help to increase income.
Vialet pointed out that Tourism also produces, to some degree, other festivals – such as the Coquito Festival, the Lechon Festival and Virgin Islands Puerto Rican Friendship. He said all festivals, including the dancing, should be appropriate for children as well as adults.
Marketing suggestions from the senators included:
– A holiday event for seniors in Christiansted.
– Advertise V.I. festivals to Historically Black Colleges and on Airbnb.
– Advertise tours, such as cooking and walking tours, at the airports.
There was some good-natured kidding between senators about the rivalry between St. Thomas and St. Croix.
“We don’t want to be St. Thomas but we want our fair share,” Vialet said, “Because they are the decision makers.”
Present at the meeting at the V.I. Cardiac Center were: DeGazon, Vialet, Francis and Sens. Alicia Barnes and Oakland Benta. Sens. Thomas, Marvin Blyden and Myron Jackson attended through Skype.