New stats show the Virgin Islands underperformed compared to the Caribbean average in tourism recovery in 2021. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

Even as the Virgin Islands tourism industry experiences a rebound following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, numbers released last month reveal that the territory underperformed the Caribbean as a whole in tourism in 2021.

VI overnight-visitor arrival numbers from January through September 2021 were down by 66 percent compared to the same period in 2020, when borders were mostly closed to visitors.

In its December monthly report, the Caribbean Tourism Organisation stated that the VI saw 26,889 visitors from January to September, the most recent month for which statistics were available.

That is a precipitous fall from previous years. Before the pandemic, tourist arrivals were approaching pre-Hurricane Irma levels in 2019. The pandemic arrived in March 2020, however, bringing a 73 percent decline year on year.

All told, 2020 saw 305,371 total visitors, down from 894,991 in 2019 and 757,015 in 2018, according to BVI Tourist Board statistics provided in October. Those numbers include overnight visitors, cruise ship passengers, and day trippers.


Neighbouring destinations that reported arrivals during the same January-through-September period fared better.

The United States VI which never officially closed its borders and has seen an influx of businesses expanding or relocating there over the past year — reported a 109.2 percent increase in arrivals over 2020.

The two other destinations reporting for that period — Guyana and Jamaica — saw inclines of 59.9 percent and 39.5 percent, respectively. In fact, the VI was the only destination to record a decrease during the interval.

Out of the 26 CTO destinations reporting international arrivals for any part of 2021, growth was recorded in 14, while another 11 destinations, including the VI, registered declines.

Other statistics released this week from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation show that the Caribbean saw the best 2021 recovery performance of any global region, with arrivals up 63 percent from 2020, though they were still down 37 percent from 2019.

Some destinations came close to exceeding pre-pandemic levels, the organisation said.

Meanwhile, cruise arrivals experienced a marked decrease in all the CTO’s reporting regions. The cruise industry has struggled to recover from the pandemic, with sailings cancelled or diverted due to Covid-19 outbreaks, and last month the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing a warning to Americans to avoid cruise travel.

Global numbers

Globally, tourism experienced a four percent upturn in 2021 compared to 2020 (415 million versus 400 million arrivals).

However, international overnight visitor numbers were still 72 percent below the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to preliminary estimates by UNWTO. This follows from 2020, the worst year on record for tourism, when international arrivals decreased by 73 percent.

According to the first 2022 issue of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, rising vaccination rates and eased travel restrictions have all helped release pent-up demand for travel.

According to limited data from the WTO, international arrivals in December were 65 percent below 2019 levels. However, it added that the full impact of the omicron variant and the accompanying surge in cases has yet to be seen.