With mask mandates quickly dropping, formerly-homebound tourists are heading out. Some Caribbean tourism experts even predict an end to the boom-and-bust cycle of on-season winters and off-season summers, at least until the post-pandemic travel itch is scratched. The coming close to the traditional USVI high season seems like an excellent time to take stock of our tourism product and find places for improvement.
Before you start rolling your eyes, know this involves you too. Yes, you.
You may not be a tourism expert, but you know what you like. You’ve been to places that get it right and those that don’t. Some of those places you visit every day.
Before COVID, the daily crush of tourists made it difficult for a thorough self-assessment. We all knew Vendor Plaza in St. Thomas was a bit of an eyesore. We all knew the car ferry operators going to and from St. John could be friendlier. We all knew the airport arrival and departure procedures were confusing to visitors. We all knew a little extra care and patience while driving around the islands could make the ride safer and more pleasant. But there just didn’t seem time or energy to do anything about it.
So before some of our major hotels come back online (which is hopefully soon), and before cruise ships start sailing at full capacity again (which may be this autumn), it might be a good time to look at our tourism product.
If you don’t think you are part of the USVI’s tourism operation, by the way, guess again. A constant refrain at international tourism conferences for at least the last two decades has been that everyone in a tourism destination — from the gas station attendant to accounting clerk to bartender — has a role in the tourism product. Moreover, we all depend on that product. It pays us all, in one way or another.
And if you are sick of thinking about what tourists want, good news: Making our islands safer, friendlier, and (fingers crossed) more efficient benefits year-round residents most of all.
But wait, you might be saying, the USVI has been a tourist destination since there was such a thing as Caribbean tourism. Truth. More good news: You can teach an old dog new tricks.
I was recently in Saudi Arabia, a destination for religious tourism for close to 2,000 years. What the famously closed-off kingdom was not accustomed to, however, were Western, non-religious tourists.
On assignment for a magazine, I was one of the first cruise ship passengers to make multiple calls in Saudi Arabia, ever. It was a luxury boutique cruise, so we weren’t the typical beach-shorts and flipflop crowd you might expect to see ambling down Main Street looking for beer and discount T-shirts. Quite the opposite.
Still, many people — welcoming and eager to please as they were — couldn’t figure out what planet we’d come from. The ship’s crew quietly confided that the first few weeks in these Red Sea ports were even stranger. Every time they got off the ship, they were greeted by suspicious security guards, sometimes with guns. The crew’s passports were checked every hundred yards or so, they told me (in confidence, so please keep it to yourself).
Eventually, however, word got around that these weird Westerners weren’t that much different than other tourists. So when I got there, about a month into the ship’s operations from Jeddah and Yanbu, our passports were checked only twice a day, then, just once a day, then, the last few days, not at all.
The Saudis recognized they were gumming up the works and changed things around quickly. They also hit me with several visitor feedback forms. They wanted to know what went right and what needed improving.
I can’t recall any tourism-facing entity in the USVI ever asking me for my feedback. Can you?
So I propose we take it upon ourselves. The Source has set up an email address, LocalTourist340@gmail.com, to collect your assessment of the USVI’s tourism product. What are we getting right, and what needs improving? No need to give your name if you don’t like. We won’t print it. We’re also not going to call out specific restaurants or hotels by name — although government agencies are fair game!
But please don’t just sing that same “WAPA Can Do Better” song. We’re not collecting rumors or accusations, either. The idea is to get our best foot forward. Be a local tourist and send your findings to LocalTourist340@gmail.com.
I went to two restaurants last night. At the first place, the way-too-high-to-be-at-work waitress revealed they hadn’t had fresh food delivered in three days and were operating at a snail’s pace with a staff of two. I promptly left and found a seat at another restaurant where the attentive, completely-sober staff brought out lovely delicacies, both local and imported.
Local tourist take: Maybe put some of the weed budget into supplies and staffing.
Here’s something else I was told in confidence that I’m fine sharing with you, trusted friends. About a decade ago, a very-very-very senior official with CLIA, basically the governing body for all the major cruise ships, told me the number one complaint about St. Thomas involved the taxis. She had a whole list of reasons that I don’t remember, but it was clear that cruise passengers did not like how they were treated by the taxis. I assume she shared this information with our tourism officials, but it certainly was not made public (so, again, please keep this to yourself).
Not to pick on the taxi man dem too much, but I bet you could have guessed this, right? Like, you kind of knew those safari drivers offering to take tourists from WICO to Botany Bay were maybe not divulging the price-per-passenger in an easy-to-understand fashion. Right?
There. I got the ball rolling. Now your turn. Go out and experience your island. Soak up the glory of the USVI and keep track of what is appealing and what is not. Be a local tourist for a while, and then report back to LocalTourist340@gmail.com.
Tourists started coming here because nature got it right. Then people started “improving” it. How’d we do? Be honest.