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Tuesday, November 28, 2023


One thing people in both the private and public sectors agree on is that tourism in the territory needs a boost. What they don’t necessarily agree on is how to do the boosting.
Hoteliers and business groups in the territory met with Gov. Charles Turnbull on Wednesday and urged him to sign off on a proposal that would create a tourism authority in the territory, said Richard Doumeng, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association. Doumeng, who was also just reelected to his second two-year term as president, said they met with the governor asking that the Tourism Department be depoliticized.
That political nature of the top tourism post was highlighted on Tuesday when Turnbull nominated long-time Assistant Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards for the job, the governor’s fourth official nominee since 1998. The last commissioner, Rafael Jackson, quit in October.
It’s that instability the private sector wants to eliminate with a tourism authority. The proposal would create a semi-autonomous agency similar to the V.I. Port Authority and the West Indian Co. Ltd. As proposed, the authority would be made up of nine members — three from government and six from the private sector. All nominees would have to be approved by the governor and confirmed by the legislature. It would involve such government agencies as the Departments of Public Works, Police, and Housing, Parks and Recreation.
The board would have the authority to issue bonds and would have an executive director responsible for managing day-to-day affairs and the $11-million-a-year generated by the territory’s 8 percent hotel occupancy tax. The tax is supposed to used to market the territory, long a bone of contention between the private sector and the government.
"We’re not crying wolf," Doumeng said. "Even though we brought people down to our properties, it’s not at a level of profitability."
He noted that while hotels on St. Croix were running at close to 90 percent occupancies over the last several months, it wasn’t due to tourists. The coker project at the Hovensa oil refinery accounts for the vast majority of that percentage. In the height of tourism season, only about 10 percent of the occupancy on St. Croix is tourism generated, Doumeng said.
Neither Turnbull or Richards, however, have weighed in publicly on the tourism authority issue. She did say Turnbull is aware of the condition of the tourism industry in the territory.
"The governor is very concerned about the state of tourism. He has pledged his support," she said. "I’m very confident . . . we’ll get what we need."
And even though she may view the current state of health of the industry differently than Doumeng, Richards was optimistic about the future. Especially if both the private and public sectors move forward together with marketing and advertising efforts.
"Our numbers are up. They are not where they used to be. They are up," she said. "We need to work more with each other. There are a lot of resources we both have."
While members of the Turnbull administration have been quiet on the tourism authority proposal – although former commissioner Jackson was openly opposed to the idea – members of the territory’s business community believe the apprehension is about control.
In their policy agenda, members Senate majority said the tourism proposal awaiting Turnbull’s approval would "remove the government from any significant role in shaping tourism policy" and place "power" in the "hands of the hotel associations and chambers of commerce."
Doumeng, however, took exception to that notion. He said a vibrant tourism economy not only benefits businesses and tourists, but also the residents of the territory.
"The tourism authority is talking about the destination: the infrastructure, having parks and public safety. It enhances the product. It’s talking about the whole concept." Doumeng said. "It’s not just about the people of the hotel association or the chamber of commerce want control of the advertising budget."
Normally, the governor has 10 working days to sign or veto a bill. But because the Legislature submitted it after adjourning last year, he has 30 working days to act on it. That gives him until Feb. 13.

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