Peter McGrath took his first trip to the Virgin Islands as a honeymooner in 2001.
“We’ve been coming back every year since, usually in February,” said the sailing enthusiast last week as he and his wife and two friends boarded the TMM sailing catamaran Mistina. The 36-foot vessel, which has the style of sails Mr. McGrath prefers, wasn’t available until April, “so, yeah, we scheduled the trip around it.”
This year is the McGraths second time chartering a bareboat from TMM.
“We’ll be back here again for sure,” said the Florida resident, gesturing to a larger catamaran. “I want that one next year.”
Although the high season officially ended April 15, TMM, which manages and charters boats for yacht owners, was still bustling with activity last week.
“We definitely had a fair year,” said the company’s operations manager, Sam Welch, crediting a storm-free and relatively long season for some of that success.
This cautious optimism was a common theme among hotels and marinas in the territory — a confidence that appears to be backed up by a recent jump in overnight visitor numbers. However, reports from businesses serving cruise ship visitors weren’t as positive, with some stakeholders citing continuing economic struggles in parts of Europe.
A strong performance from businesses serving overnight guests is an indicator that the territory’s economy “is rebounding, at least from a tourism standpoint,” said Tourism Director Sharon Flax-Mars.
“Occupancies have been good; we feel good about that,” Ms. Flax-Mars said, adding that since overnight guests spend more per visit, they’re a major focus for the BVI Tourist Board, the entity responsible for marketing the territory to visitors overseas.
Overnight numbers were up four percent for the 2013 calendar year, but preliminary figures suggest that 2014 has been much stronger, Ms. Flax-Mars said. In January and February, there were about 10 percent more overnight visitors to the territory compared to the same months in 2013, according to the most recent figures available from the Development Planning Unit.
“Year over year, we’ve been able to move the needle a little bit,” Ms. Flax-Mars said.
Longer-term figures suggest that businesses serving overnighters weathered the recession better than other parts of the tourism sector. Although total visitor arrivals have declined steadily each year since 2008, overnight arrivals have countered this trend, increasing slowly since 2010. And last year, overnight numbers exceeded 2007’s pre-recession performance for the first time.
Similar numbers have been reported in the region, where “the 2013 occupancy rate (67.1 percent) was directly in line with pre-crisis levels,” according to the Caribbean Tourism Review, an annual publication by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation. The report also states that “all major hotel performance indicators remained positive” for 2013 when compared with 2012.
Meanwhile, last year saw modest growth in arrivals throughout the region — an increase of about two percent over the previous year, according to the CTO. Of the 26 countries and territories that report figures to the CTO, 18 reported increases in total arrivals. The organisation said this year should see further growth.
Hotels and marinas
Nanny Cay Resort and Marina saw its “best season in a number of years,” said Miles Sutherland-Pilch, the resort and marina’s general manager. He said increased dry storage space this year and a series of races and busy boat shows helped fuel the successful season, but that a touch of Hollywood was what pushed this year over the top.
“What really made our season was having the production team here in January and February from Below Deck,” Mr. Sutherland-Pilch said. The unscripted show, which is scheduled to return to air this summer on Bravo, follows the crew of a megayacht as they serve charter guests.
“That was the extra activity to make our season great. They took over our townhouses and hotel rooms,” he said.
Plenty of water traffic has translated into a good year across the channel at the Bitter End Yacht Club as well, said the resort’s managing director, Gordon Overing.
“We had very solid boat traffic, which really helped to keep our outlets busy – the restaurants and water sports centre,” Mr. Overing said, adding, “I think it was one of the biggest seasons we’ve seen on the water ever.”
On the hotel side, Mr. Overing said the level of business was about the same as last year, including a fully booked Christmas and Easter, thanks to North American school holidays.
“We’re a relatively small property and we appeal to a specific type of guest: people who are into water sports, families, people that like to get out and do things,” he said. About 65 percent of the resort’s clientele are return visitors.
“Our customer base will generally book their next vacation at checkout,” he said.
Compared to other Caribbean destinations, repeat visitors are a hallmark of the VI’s business, according to Ms. Flax-Mars, who had recently been recognised in the airport by a woman who was a regular visitor at the director’s former place of employment, Rosewood Little Dix Bay.
“I like to say in the BVI we don’t have visitors, we have guests,” Ms. Flax-Mars said. “The BVI is special that way: We bond with our guests.”
She added that the territory’s high marks for friendliness in publications like Conde Nast Traveller and its reputation as a safe destination also help bring visitors back.
At Long Bay Beach Club, which re-opened in October after a five-month closure, business was better than general manager Hugh Robertson expected. Now a 42-room hotel, the business formerly operated a 54-room hotel and managed 12 privately owned estate homes, 29 privately owned villas, and 36 poolside apartments.
“We thought it would take a lot longer for the market to realise that we were back open,” Mr. Robertson said, adding that the pared-down resort has been running at “fairly high occupancy rates.”
Mr. Robertson said the resort has seen a slight uptick in travellers from the United Kingdom, and a substantial increase in requests for information from UK travellers.
“There’s been a lot of interest from the UK,” Mr. Robertson said. “That’s a good indicator for future bookings.”
Ms. Flax-Mars described the UK and Latin America as “emerging markets that we’ve been courting,” chalking up the increased interest to the territory’s marketing efforts. She said that although the official breakdown of visitors by country of origin isn’t yet available, she’s heard from many in the industry that the number of visitors coming from Canada and the United States appears “strong.”
In Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, the past season was the best since the start of the recession, said Angela Flax, one of the managers at Fischer’s Cove Beach Hotel. Christmas and New Year’s holiday crowds saw the family-run hotel at capacity, and it stayed fairly busy straight through to the recent Easter holiday, Ms. Flax said.
The later Easter appears to have boosted April bookings for many properties in the territory, including The Sugar Mill in Apple Bay, but, added owner Jeff Morgan, “in talking with our guests, we find that many of them made reservations during the terrible winter and just wanted to get away.” He said this month the hotel is up nearly 30 percent over any previous April.
The run-up to the Easter holiday weekend saw many yacht crews working busily to ready for a round of visitors spending the holiday in the territory, said Charter Yacht Society Chairwoman Ruth Ross.
“We’re still in the throes of it,” said the chef and first mate of the S/V ReAction of many of CYS’ member crews, adding that Easter falling slightly later in the year seems to have helped extend the season that typically begins for yachts around the US’ November Thanksgiving holiday.
Ms. Ross said this season was an improvement compared with recent years, but a good year isn’t enough to feel certain the effects of the recession have ended.
“I think the season was definitely a bit better,” she said, adding, “We’re optimistic. I wouldn’t say confident, but there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Companies that provide bareboat services reported a similarly positive outlook.
“For us, the turnaround would be the fact that we got newer boats,” said Mr. Welch, the TMM operations manager.
During the height of the recession, people weren’t buying new boats, but this year saw several new vessels at TMM.
“This season we added five or six new boats, and there are more coming to us,” he said. The company’s fleet has about 36 boats, down from a high a few years ago of about 42.
“It’s coming back up again,” he said. “Will it be more? Only time will tell.”
New vessels also fuelled growth at The Moorings, said Shannan Brennan, the company’s head of global marketing.
“It’s been spectacular,” Ms. Brennan said of 2013, which saw a 24 percent increase in business over 2012. The Moorings also books crewed and bareboat charters in other Caribbean destinations and in the Mediterranean, the United States, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.
In the VI, Ms. Brennan noted a particularly large increase in business from the United Kingdom — a jump of 49 percent over 2012.
“The BVI is now — for The Moorings — the number one destination for [travellers from] the UK,” Ms. Brennan said. She added that this is a change from past years, when trips to the Mediterranean or Antigua have dominated.
Sailing and “island hopping” on day sails or charters is one of the ways the territory provides visitors with a “unique experience,” said Ms. Flax-Mars. Selling the VI as a destination where visitors will have a one-of-a-kind experience is key to attracting new visitors, she said, echoing advice given months earlier by travel agents and marketers at BVI Marketplace, the territory’s second trade show for tourism businesses.
“They like the idea of sailing around the BVI, where each island has something different to offer,” Ms. Flax-Mars said.
Things have been busy under the water as well as on it, said BVI Dive Association President Casey McNutt. She said that while it’s hard to generalise for the entire association, many member shops have had a good year.
At Dive BVI in Spanish Town, Ms. McNutt and her colleagues take visitors on dives and day sails, and for the first time in several years, the shop is taking bookings for a year ahead. She said that in recent years, as travellers look for bargains, the company has seen more and more business during the usually slow summer months.
This summer looks even more promising, she said, with guests booked from the second week of summer “solid.”
Still troubling: Cruise ships
January and February each saw about 20 percent more cruise ship arrivals compared with 2013, but those figures are a bright spot in what appears to be a still sluggish portion of the sector. Cruise ship arrivals have declined every year since 2007. In 2013, 367,362 cruise ship passengers visited the territory, the lowest number the territory has seen since 2003.
Government’s answer to the declining numbers is a plan to extend the territory’s cruise ship pier and develop approximately four acres in Wickhams Cay to make Road Town more attractive for cruise lines.
That development is being funded with loans taken out on the strength of two recent preferential berthing agreements with Disney and Norwegian cruise lines. The agreements call for the companies to bring 425,000 passengers per year to the territory or pay the per-visitor tax on that number of visitors.
Once the development is complete, the territory should see more than 500,000 cruise ship passengers per year, Communications and Works Minister Mark Vanterpool said last week, when government signed a contract with IDL Projects Inc./Meridian Construction Company to lengthen the pier by 1,300 feet.
The extended pier is expected to be in use by January, according to Mr. Vanterpool.
But industry insiders still worry. Shipping agent Christopher Haycraft said last week that business for next season looks uncertain. As an example, he explained that one of Island Shipping and Trading’s cruise lines, TUI, has dropped the VI from its ports of call.
The berthing agreements with Norwegian and Disney will mean tougher scheduling for other cruise ships, he added: “They’re not willing to be at anchor, and their schedule isn’t flexible.”
Rather than backtrack on their itinerary — moving down the chain and coming back again — any ship displaced by one docking under the agreement might simply skip the territory, he said.
For some taxi and tour operators, who rely on cruise ship passengers for their business, the recent high season wasn’t too bad, said BVI Taxi Association Secretary Cathy Ann Billingy. But she added that many drivers are “worried” about the coming season because they don’t yet know whether the line that currently provides them with the most business — Carnival — plans to continue calling in the VI, Ms. Billingy said.
“Carnival are the ones that really bring us work, and as far as I know government still hasn’t reached an agreement with them,” she said, adding that Carnival is one of the few lines that has visited the territory in the off-season in the past.
In addition to providing shoppers, diners and tour-takers, cruise ships can be a chance to introduce the territory to new returning visitors, according to Ms. Flax-Mars.
“The idea is that a cruise visitor has the potential to be an overnight visitor,” she said, adding that government’s planned cruise pier expansion and the development of approximately four acres surrounding the pier will mean a better experience in the short amount of time cruise ship visitors are in the territory.