The St. Thomas-St. John District is experiencing a discernible uptick in the number of stay-over visitors. On St. Thomas, it is very difficult to book a rental car; hotel occupancy is up; Airbnb and VRBO rentals are also up. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol lines are long at the airport; taxis are busy; restaurants are packed in the Red Hook and Frenchtown area.
The most recent available air visitors available from the Bureau of Economic Research show positive increases from October 2020 to January 2021 for the territory. However, the January 2021 arrivals are still 40% less than the January 2020 arrivals — 43,749 compared to 72,614.
What explains the rebound?
The rebound in stay-over visitors, which started around Thanksgiving 2019, is driven by three factors: Pent-up demand to travel, the relative openness of the U.S. Virgin Islands compared to other Caribbean tourism destinations, and low airfares.
First, middle-class Americans saved $3.5 trillion during 2019 because of all the COVID-related restrictions. They have cabin fever and want to get out.
Second, the USVI has less stringent COVID requirements than the rest of the Caribbean except for Dominica and Haiti. According to Our World in Data, as of March 21, the USVI has a 49.07 stringency index rating (range 0-100, with 100 being the most stringent) compared to 66.67 for Puerto Rico, 71.3 for Jamaica, 70.3 for the Dominican Republic, and 68.98 for the Bahamas. While most other Caribbean destinations have multiple entry requirements, the USVI only requires a five-day old COVID negative test or a four-month old antibody test and issues warnings more often than fines for masking violations.
Third, the cost of air travel to the USVI has fallen considerably. For example, you can fly roundtrip, Atlanta to St. Thomas, for $390.
What are tourists saying?
Here are the main insights gleaned from the information gathered from interaction with 40 Airbnb guests visiting the island of St. Thomas during January and March. Granted, this is a non-random, non-representative, convenience sample, but the information gathered is still indicative and should prompt actions to conduct more rigorous, random sample surveys of tourists:
Increasing demographic diversity: Historically, most tourists who came to the Virgin Islands hailed from the Northeast and Southeast regions, and were middle-aged and white. Many in the sample seem to be coming from further-afield places like the Upper Midwest, North Dakota, Utah and Washington state. Age-wise, it seems like more young people (under 30) are coming. More black Americans, interracial couples, girlfriend groups, and more blue-collar workers seem to be coming. But the majority still are white, middle-aged, white-collar workers and professionals.
High expenditure patterns. Visitors are spending large sums on food, liquor, car rentals, boat excursions and restaurants. They are not interested in purchasing gifts or jewelry. Many seem most motivated to have authentic experiences, eat “local cuisine,” and explore. For example, I interacted with an Iranian-American couple who visited several beaches, paddle-boarded, went to the farmer’s market, and wanted to know everything about local fruits and bush teas in a week.
Praise was consistent for certain things. The overwhelming majority expressed the following positive things: breathtaking natural beauty, pleasant weather, friendly people and interesting history and culture.
Complaints and laments
Besides the good things, several laments emerged:
It takes way too long to get a rental car. Unacceptable to wait for 40 minutes to 3 hours to get a rental car even though they had reservations.
No recycling. Visitors are just dumbfounded that we are not recycling.
Cash-based society. Ferry and many taxi drivers still only take cash. Travelers do not want to go around with large wads of cash or hunt for ATMs.
Too many eyesores. Overflowing trash bins, abandoned vehicles, and the disrepair of the downtown Charlotte Amalie area.
Roads are bad. Narrow, uneven and rough surfaces, collapsing shoulders, and many blind corners make for unpleasant driving experiences.
Local foods at night. Tourists are clamoring for local food, but not enough high-quality restaurants that serve authentic Caribbean food in the evening.
Limited cultural, historical, ethnographic attractions; WAPA outages and slow internet.
In summary, some clear implicit recommendations for government policymakers and leisure/hospitality business stakeholders are:
• Clean up and beautify the place. Solve the trash problem, remove the numerous abandoned cars, plant foliage and shrubs alongside public roads, and fine people for littering.
• Create more educational, cultural, and artistic attractions.
• Fix the car rental problem. Publish satisfaction ratings to shame agencies into running better operations. Work to prevent overbooking.
• Start a territorywide recycling program focusing on plastics, glass, and metal cans.
• Make repairing and fixing the roads a high priority. Put up parabolic mirrors in blind spots.
• Build and or create more lodging. The hotel room capacity still has not returned to the pre-Irma/Maria levels. Support locals in getting into Airbnb/VRBO space.
• Ditch the complacent attitude. We must always strive to do better. We must compete with other tourist destinations that offer sand, sea, and surf and not just depend on no passport requirement for U.S. citizens from the mainland.
— Mark Wenner, St. Thomas