One fine evening at Pusser’s in Road Town, this Old Boy sat with a fellow Old Boy from the same United Kingdom alma mater. After a cold drink, the men ambled to Taste of India a few yards away for some exquisite Asian cuisine.
It was a beautiful night, with a full moon that illuminated the sky, throwing a glowing and wonderful blue light over the islands. Road Town — which has greatly improved since the September tragedies — enjoyed a picture-perfect dusk. This was the very meaning of Utopia: surreal.
Pusser’s, however, was unusually empty, apart from two or three customers. This writer’s friend, a local hotelier whose business was destroyed by Irma, put it down to the post-disaster recession.
“My associates in the hotel business tell me business is very slow right now,” he said. “I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel presently. High-end tourism is the way ahead. Guests who overnight and spend any length of time in the territory are the type of visitor we should be focusing on. Cruise ship passengers are not big spenders. They have all they need on the cruise ship. The one thing the VI has to offer is beautiful geography. Virgin Gorda has got it right, and so has Jost Van Dyke. Tortola is going in the wrong direction.”
He added that overnight visitors spend the cash that drives the rest of the economy.
“That is why they are termed high end, Dickson,” he said.
Okay. This Older Boy was getting it.
His friend continued, “They recline and sleep on board chartered yachts, occupy rooms at small hotels and villas, lounge at various resorts that sit on the coasts and shorelines, and spend a lot of time ambling about the various villages of the archipelago. They sail, swim, hike, run, cycle, eat at seaside restaurants, and enjoy the beautiful idyll that is the VI.”
Then he made a point that was very revealing to this Village Square Tinker: “The geography of the VI is unique, and especially created for discerning and adventurous types. VI tourism especially attracts the high-end visitor. These are guests who are interested in sustainability, and experiencing life in a pristine ecosystem.
“Visitors to the VI want to fully appreciate a wonderful sunset, a magical blue moon, seas fully illuminated by a starry night, the gentle lapping of waves on a white sand beach, the sounds of palm fronds, and the slap and snap of tree branches, as the sea breeze races through mangrove, bush, thicket and foliage. They want to simply chill, walk a long beach, and eat a sumptuous dinner of Anegada lobster to a lively fungi band.
“These tourists are not interested in the mundane buildings of Road Town, and the unnecessary traffic and congestion caused by a senseless love affair with the motor vehicle. They would rather ride a bicycle or take a long walk along the coastal roads that surround the islands, smelling the salt from the sea and listening to the waves while observing the awesome views of surrounding islands.”
Yours truly listened intently as the businessman continued, “The important thing right now is to clean up the island. High-end visitors spend exponentially more cash on hotels, restaurants, taxis and car rentals than cruise passengers. The high-end visitor who spends up to a fortnight in the territory keeps the waiter in a job, the hotels in business, and taxis and car rentals busy. He charters yachts and ensures the boat yards and marinas are fruitfully occupied. He ambles into supermarkets and various businesses the cruise ship passengers never visit.”
He also stated that the internet is a critical avenue for the tourism industry. And from his forays into the review website TripAdvisor, he fears it is only a matter of time before the VI is labelled mainly as a cruise destination, which would deter the more discerning and high-end traveller from visiting. This traveller thought him a bit of a snob, but the man clearly knew what he was talking about.
A strategic five-to-20-year strategic economic plan that ensures tourism remains a high quality, high value product that caters to the higher end of the market must also facilitate lower spending travellers.
The plan should make safe, secure, green, clean, pristine and wholesome part of the core narrative of a 10-20-year VI economic plan. A strategic plan also must focus on high-end tourism. It will further ensure optimal connections to hub airports in the region — including St. Thomas, St. Martin, Puerto Rico and Antigua — with a local airline. It will enable and empower citizens to become bad-and-breakfast hosts through the Airbnb model of ensuring high quality, fully air-conditioned accommodations in private homes that will bring hundreds of extra rooms into the hospitality market. It should ensure late night ferries from Charlotte Amalie, and place a customs and immigration reception desk, and office, at Cyril E. King International Airport with swift links to ferry services to West End and Road Town.
The preceding should be part of the future vision of a tourism El Dorado embedded in a five-to-20-year strategic economic plan.
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