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PRIVATE SECTOR TO PURSUE TOURISM AUTHORITY

April 20, 2001 — The territory’s business leaders are determined to pursue the creation of a private/public tourism authority, even though Gov. Charles Turnbull has nixed the idea.
The issue was among those discussed Thursday at the first joint meeting since 1998 of the chambers of commerce and hotel associations of St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John. Tourism, tax reform and insurance issues dominated the discussion, John de Jongh, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, said.
De Jongh said Turnbull's recent announcements that occupancy rates on St. Croix and air arrivals on St. Thomas are up are "illusionary." A massive influx of temporary, off-island workers at the St. Croix oil refinery accounts for the filled hotel rooms on the Big Island, while British Airways charter flights filled with passengers heading to the British Virgin Islands account for a good number of "arrivals" on St. Thomas, he said.
Without those numbers, tourism in the territory is meager, de Jongh said.
"People are concerned about continued employment for their employees," he said, adding that this is just one reason the private sector wants a tourism authority.
Turnbull vetoed legislation passed late last year to establish a semi-autonomous authority to replace the Tourism Department, even though the administration's five-year economic recovery plan recommended such a move.
Explaining his veto, Turnbull said the authority would have vested too much power in a community board without enough public-sector involvement. He also said eliminating the Tourism Department "overnight" was not prudent.
In place of the authority, he created a Tourism Advisory Council comprising public- and private-sector members and chaired by Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards. But the leaders of the territory’s business and tourism associations opted earlier this month not to participate.
"It doesn’t matter who the governor appoints. We don’t believe the tourism committee is the route for us," de Jongh said.
He noted that the tourism authority idea was part of the governor’s own five-year plan and part of the administration’s transition report.
"In a way, the governor has vetoed his own legislation," de Jongh said. "We want to have a meaningful seat at the table."
Carmelo Rivera, president of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, said the only way to get the tourism authority idea back on the table will be by educating those who are against it. Part of that plan will be to show opponents that other successful tourist destinations have already implemented such a plan, including the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Rivera said the private sector recognizes that the Senate majority is open to some form of public/private tourism administrative body. He said business leaders will seek meetings with both Turnbull and Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd.
"I’m going to take them seriously that they are pro-business," Rivera said of the majority senators. "Most governments in every state … are moving toward public-/private-sector arrangements. Government can’t do it alone. I hope we can move away from that mentality in the territory."

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