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Cruz Bay
Saturday, December 9, 2023


The slowing U.S. economy, high air fares and not enough seats are hobbling the island's 2001 winter season, but bitter, icy weather over much of the mainland just might balance things out, according to many hoteliers.
St. Thomas hotels contacted this week ran the gamut from totally booked over Christmas and into the new year to "oh, just average, nothing to write home about." Those words of one small hotel owner reflected the comments of many others.
"If we'd had all the reservations we had booked," said Dennis Cunningham, food and beverage manager at the Island Beachcomber Hotel, "we would have been in great shape." But Cunningham said the hotel has been getting cancellations because of astronomical air fares or no availability.
Christmas "wasn't bad, just down a little," he said. "But the airlines are killing us."
This lament was heard from many of the smaller hotels and guest houses that are not part of major travel wholesalers' airfare/accommodations packages and don't qualify for Industrial Development Commission benefits.
But Beverly Nicholson, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, said the issue is not airline availability. "We have 17,000 seats weekly," she said. "We're right up there with the major Caribbean destinations."
Nicholson said the problem is Wall Street.
"People are more concerned about the economy now," she said. "People are really looking at spending."
V.I. hotels generally fill up around Dec. 28, Nicholson said, right after Christmas. Occupancy then starts running from 80 percent to 90 percent, she said.
Commenting on what many hotels report as a "soft" or "flat" January, Nicholson said that traditionally the hotels slow down in early January and pick up significantly in February.
This year's freezing temperatures in the states may help. "This is one of the cruelest winters in a long time," Nicholson added, "so we should be seeing lots of bookings because of the weather."
The Danish Chalet Guest House had a good Christmas and is looking forward to a good winter season. "We were totally booked. We had 25 guests the other day," said Mary Davis, owner along with husband Frank. The guest house has been in business for more than 50 years, Davis pointed out, and has many repeat customers.
Blackbeard's Inn reported a slow Christmas in its 13 rooms but sales manager Monica Aurbou said the inn is full from now until New Year's. At the Green Iguana guest house just below Blackbeard's, general manager Mick Ratcliff said all eight of its units were occupied.
Michael Ball, owner of Hotel 1829, said Christmas business wasn't "overwhelming." January looks soft, he said, but things are looking up in February.
Island View Guest House owner Barbara Cooper said Christmas was "light, medium, certainly not like years ago." Cooper is not alone. No island hotel operates like the booming times of the '70s and '80s.
But Wyndham Sugar Bay is exulting. Claudina Boulai, marketing manager, said the hotel is full now through April. Christmas was great too, she said. "We always have lots of local functions over the holidays, and this year was wonderful."
"The holidays were very good for us," agreed Carter Donovan, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "And we're booked solid starting Monday right through January second."
Donovan said the hotel picked up some repeat guests from last year when Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda was closed.
"We're forecasting right now to beat last year," she said of the winter season.
David Yamada, general manager of the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, was very happy with the hotel's Christmas season. "We were about 80 percent full over Christmas, and it looks like the high 90's between here and New Years," he said.
Yamada said January looks good, but February's bookings are "excellent."
"I feel pretty good about my first year here, and good about the coming year," said Yamada, who started as general manager in April.
Joel Kling, general manager of Westin Resort's Carib Beach and Emerald Beach Hotel on Lindbergh Bay, said the Emerald Beach property fared better over Christmas than the recently renovated Carib Beach Hotel but the season "looks good overall." He too mentioned air fares as the big problem. "All hoteliers have dropped their rates drastically," Kling said, "so we should have all the rooms filled."
Richard Doumeng, owner and manager of Bolongo Bay Beach Club & Villas, was happy. "We had a sensational Christmas – we even had a great Thanksgiving," he said.
Doumeng pointed out that the hotel's "fantastic" millennium business last year spurred repeat guests this year. "We were fuller earlier, and they stayed later." Though he said Bolongo has been lucky to get the repeat business, the season doesn't "look like gangbusters, but it's remarkably early to tell."
Doumeng, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, said he would like to see some government advertising this winter, unlike last year when TV ads didn't get going until summer. Doumeng, other hoteliers and former Tourism Commissioner Rafael "Rafie" Jackson helped get a print media blitz going in January, which has paid off.

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