For about two decades, the Virgin Islands has been operating without a national tourism strategy.

It shows.

Government’s tourism decisions tend to take the form of haphazard knee-jerk reactions rather than progressive reforms. At times, they benefit one of the three main sub-sectors — land-based properties, yachting, or cruise ships — with no real consideration for the others.

In an increasingly competitive international landscape, this approach is a recipe for disaster.

We were therefore pleased to hear Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley promise that his government will draft a national tourism plan by the end of the year.

But if this document is to succeed, it must be done right.

Tourism, of course, is one of the twin pillars of the VI economy. It provides sizable — and largely stable — tax revenue and thousands of jobs. Moreover, many of the businesses involved in the sector are owned by Virgin Islanders.

A proper plan can help guide the way forward for the industry: which tourists the territory should target; which sub-sectors should get priority; how carrying capacities should be determined; how the environment can be safeguarded against overuse; and how VI residents can benefit sustainably over the long term, for instance.

A tourism strategy is also indispensable for informing national development decisions. A case in point is the government’s proposal to expand the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport.

Recently, a consultant was selected to carry out a business case that includes reviewing the airport proposal in light of the territory’s tourism strategy. Of course, with no tourism strategy, this requirement is impossible to fulfil.

But drafting the right strategy is a big job that will require balancing a wide range of opinions.

That’s why it’s so important to select an experienced and able vendor for the job, and why the public must be engaged at every stage of the process.

Public meetings would be a good place to start, and press conferences, a social media and advertising campaign, stakeholder meetings, and a dedicated website should follow.

Special attention should be paid to ensuring that input is sought on the sister islands, where tourism is a main economic driver.

As part of the conversation, government should also make available any documents it is currently using to guide the sector, including the BVI Tourist Board’s marketing plan.

Other guidance may come from the stakeholder consultations that Dr. Wheatley said have been held recently as part of the territory’s contribution to a regional tourism plan being created by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States.

We are glad that the VI is taking part in this OECS exercise — which could prove useful, for instance, in helping the region present a united front in negotiations with the cruise industry — but the territory’s own national tourism strategy must be created separately based on local, VI-focused consultations.

Thankfully, the territory’s tourism sector remains strong despite the destruction caused by the 2017 hurricanes and the disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic. Cruise visitor arrivals set a record last year. Major resorts continue to rebuild and expand. The yachting sector is experiencing high demand.

But competition is nevertheless heating up as destinations around the world launch progressive campaigns to attract the tourist of the future. If the VI doesn’t keep up, it will be left behind.

A long-term tourism strategy, then, is an urgent priority well worth the VI government’s time and money.

Getting there will require difficult conversations. But they must start now.