ST. THOMAS — Gov. Kenneth Mapp met with members of the business community Tuesday to discuss plans for the upcoming tourism season.
More than 100 people crammed into the conference room at the Government Employees’ Retirement System to hear from Mapp, Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty, and West Indian Co. President and CEO Clifford Graham.
“It’s been quite a ride for all of us in the territory,” Mapp said, describing the situation as an “opportunity” to rebuild infrastructure better and stronger.
While Norwegian Cruise Lines announced that it will be shifting itineraries to the western Caribbean for the remainder of the year and it’s been rumored that other cruise lines were not planning to make port calls in the territory until January, Mapp said cruise lines will be back “probably by the third week in October.”
He emphasized that “the top priority” is still cleanup and disaster recovery, but he encouraged business leaders to start preparing now for the upcoming season.
“It appears it’s going to be a robust schedule,” Mapp said of the cruise lines.
Mapp said he plans to institute a 12-member task force to focus on recovery efforts and rebuilding the tourism industry, and wants to have certain “hot spots” for excursions ready for visitors.
“Part of the new excursion is to see the disaster,” Mapp said jokingly, drawing some laughs from those in the crowd.
Mapp said he had signed the contract for the Main Street project Tuesday evening, which also elicited applause from some in attendance.
Pash Daswani, president of the India Association, said Main Street merchants are ready to start welcoming visitors, and retailers in Havensight are also prepared for cruise ships to arrive “whenever that is.”
Mapp said he is working to bring additional linemen and relief efforts to the territory, and that workers will be housed on boats anchored off St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Communication remains a major concern, and Mapp said AT&T cell service went down on St. Croix after thieves stole a generator. Mapp said the FBI located the generator and is investigating the crime.
Communication on St. John is limited to radio, and Mapp said the V.I. government is working to restore communications throughout the territory.
Adam Reeve, director of Operations at Cruise Ship Excursions, said most excursions made it through the storms relatively unscathed, and can be up and running soon.
But the loss of St. John as a destination is a huge blow, Reeve said, and he and others expressed concern about cleanup of Honeymoon Beach on Water Island, another popular cruise ship excursion destination.
Richard Berry, president of Bellows International, said many food and beverage businesses on St. Thomas are already open or can be ready soon, and “we’re fully delivering to everybody as of today.”
Doty said she has spoken with Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dawn Henry about water quality at area beaches, and was assured they should be safe for swimming in about two weeks as post-hurricane pollution dissipates.
Hubert Brumant, manager at Magens Bay Authority, said Smith Bay Park is essentially fine, but he needs heavy equipment to help clear Magens Bay and remove debris to make it safe for tourists. The beach sheds suffered little damage, but the concession area needs repair, he said.
While many focused on the boon cruise ships will bring to the economy, the hotel industry has been hit hard, and Doty said most hotels will be closed for six months to a year “if not longer.”
Judi Nagelberg of Island Meetings and Incentives said her business exclusively books meetings and events at hotels. Without those hotels open, Nagelberg said she is not sure what she’s going to do.
“The tourism industry from the hotel side really is devastated,” Nagelberg said.
Several expressed concern at the inability to access the Lt. Governor’s Office for important business transactions, and Mapp said the government is working to restore systems there.
A diesel shortage is also causing problems for many, and while Mapp said 21 million gallons of fuel is stored in the territory, transporting it from St. Croix to St. Thomas, or even between places on St. Thomas, has been fraught with issues, according to those who spoke at the meeting.
Cassandra Francis of Francis Properties, who manages the V.I. Medical Foundation Building, said the building is dry and ready to open, but needs power. She described issues in connecting a new generator to the building, and said it’s crucial that the businesses inside the building — including Drug Farm Pharmacy, a chemotherapy suite, kidney dialysis, mental health professionals, the V.A. clinic and more — receive power as soon as possible so they can start helping residents.
Mapp said that while recovery will be long and arduous, there are millions in federal grants available to help build new hospitals, schools and better infrastructure.
“I feel very excited for the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Mapp said, adding again that tourists will want to come see the destruction left behind by Irma and Maria.
“Trust me, the hurricane disaster will become folks’ experience,” Mapp said.