Virgin Islands tourism is recovering quickly as the Covid-19 pandemic eases. This is great news.
But it is also a reminder that the territory urgently needs the comprehensive tourism plan that successive governments have been promising for more than a decade.
Following two years of pandemic restrictions, the dominant tourism strategy at the moment appears to be an understandable knee-jerk reaction: bring as many visitors as humanly possible, be they overnight guests on land or at sea, cruise ship passengers, or other day-trippers.
For the current season, this approach makes sense. The industry, after all, suffered greatly during the pandemic, with dozens of businesses forced to close and thousands of workers laid off. A bustling season will serve to jump-start a badly needed recovery.
But much remains uncertain post-pandemic, and the current boom does not guarantee future arrivals in an increasingly competitive global landscape. Nor can the VI tourism industry expand indefinitely without compromising the delicate natural resources that visitors come here to enjoy.
Moving forward, then, the territory must ask itself some difficult questions.
How many visitors can the VI realistically accommodate each year without losing its charm, alienating its loyal client base, or irreparably damaging its ecosystems?
Which sub-sectors should get priority, and how should the frictions between them be resolved? What sort of tourism development should the VI work to attract?
How should the territory address longstanding access issues, which will be eased but not resolved by the planned direct flights to Miami? Can the VI’s flagging infrastructure even withstand the pressure from more visitors?
Answering such questions will not be easy, and the process will doubtlessly spark controversy between competing interests. But such issues urgently need to be considered in a public forum, with collective decisions incorporated into a long-term tourism plan designed to ensure a sustainable industry for generations to come.
Among other content, the plan should include candid assessments by scientists who are qualified to assess the long-term carrying capacity of the territory’s beaches, reefs and other sites of interest.
Also key is a clear strategic vision for the continued development of the industry, with specific plans for the land-based sector, the yachting and marine sector, and the cruise sector. The strategy must also address human resources needs; air access; the management structure for tourism at the national level, including the possibility of a standalone tourism ministry; incentives for Virgin Islanders investing in tourism; parameters for foreign investment; and the long-term requirements for a globally competitive industry post-Covid-19.
To our thinking, the plan should look ahead at least 30 years, and it should examine the potential outcomes of low-, medium- and high-growth scenarios over the period.
For the best results, we suggest that government commission an independent consultancy with wide-ranging expertise and a record of success in drafting similar plans that worked for other jurisdictions.
And it goes without saying that the public must be involved at every step of the way.
A comprehensive plan is essential to ensuring that the territory’s tourism industry is robust and sustainable for decades to come.
Growth at all costs is not the answer, even coming out of the lean pandemic years.