At a time when the territory urgently needs its tourism industry to recover quickly from the pandemic, we have been distressed to hear repeated horror stories about travellers’ arrival experience in recent weeks.
On the evening of Jan. 5, we saw for ourselves, and we were appalled.
At the Road Town Ferry Terminal, officials from the BVI Ports Authority, Immigration and Customs were polite and professional, but the team was clearly understaffed, under-resourced and struggling to manage in a facility that is poorly designed and uncomfortable at best.
As a result, dozens of arriving passengers — the great majority of them tourists — were left upset and grumbling, if not outright irate.
The ferry left St. Thomas a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 4 p.m. So far, so good. But upon arrival, the antsy passengers were made to wait for about half an hour while a skeleton crew of ferry employees unloaded luggage. Then they filed out into a long line while the two Immigration officers on duty got to work processing them.
As a resident, a Beacon representative was told belatedly that he could proceed to the front of the line, but he nevertheless wasn’t cleared until more than an hour after the ferry docked. Dozens of other people were left behind and had to wait much longer.
Several were seniors who appeared exhausted, and others were parents with toddlers. Most had doubtlessly been travelling all day, if not longer. Many were complaining quietly; others were laughing out loud at the sheer absurdity of the situation.
Such treatment is a national embarrassment, and it is a major threat to a tourism industry that has been working overtime to recover from the pandemic as it faces increasing competition from abroad.
Of course, we understand that Immigration and Customs have important jobs to do and that arrival queues can be a hassle the world over. But this is no reason that a small jurisdiction like the Virgin Islands can’t do far better. And do better it must.
On Friday, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, who is the minister of tourism, told reporters that the government has been working to improve the arrival experience at ports of entry. It is clearly not doing enough.
Thankfully, several solutions are no-brainers.
• At seaports, officials should implement a better system for clearing baggage and passengers from ferries: Passengers should disembark first if possible, and ferry companies should be required to employ enough staff to clear bags quickly.
• All ports of entry should add more Immigration officers during busy times. At the Road Town terminal, there appears to be space for at least four officers to process passengers simultaneously. Why were only two on the job when a full ferry arrived on Jan. 5? If new hires are needed, so be it.
• Measures should be implemented to make passengers more comfortable while they wait. At the Road Town terminal, possibilities include a system that allows them to take a number and sit in the unused seats in the terminal.
• Finally, officials should take extra steps to make travellers feel more welcome when they arrive. At the St. Thomas airport, for instance, airline passengers are often treated to free rum shots and music. As soon as they arrive, they know their vacation has begun.
None of the above measures should be cost-prohibitive or difficult to implement, and we see no reason why they shouldn’t be put in place immediately. Then the government can proceed to longer term solutions such as expanding the Road Town terminal, building the promised West End terminal, and improving airport arrival areas.
VI visitors come a long way to be here, and they provide a pillar of the territory’s economy. They should be greeted with a joyous welcome, not another travel nightmare.