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HomeNewsArchivesAIRLIFT, WEB SITE SEEN AS KEYS TO TOURISM GROWTH

AIRLIFT, WEB SITE SEEN AS KEYS TO TOURISM GROWTH

April 24, 2001 – Representatives of companies that delivered more than $100 million in business to the territory last year spent the last three days at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort relaxing and enjoying some of the fruits of their labors — and taking a look at ways to deliver even more revenues in 2001.
The visitors — tour operators, airline representatives, travel writers and advertising and public relations people –- came together with hoteliers and other local hospitality industry leaders for the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association's 8th annual Destination Symposium.
Richard Doumeng, association president, had projected that the symposium would be "the biggest yet," and it was. More than a hundred participants listened Monday morning as the keynote speaker, Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards, delivered good news about a 2001 increase in the territory's tourism, not-so-good news about Virgin Islands airlift, indefinite news on the debut of the territory's long-anticipated website, and unique news about a V.I. "Looneytunes" summer program.
Richards said hospitality indicators so far this year are positive. Visitor arrivals for the first three months of 2001 totaled 887,400, up 17.3 percent from the same period last year, she said. Part of that growth is due to a 3 percent increase in cruise ship calls. Air arrivals, totaling 185,490 for the period, were up 4.1 per cent over last year, she said, and hotel occupancy rates increased by 5 percent.
Projecting that the territory's visitor air arrivals will reach 650,000 by the end of the year despite a disadvantage in air fares from the mainland, she noted, "It's ironic that it is more expensive to travel to a U.S. territory than to all other Caribbean nations that are farther away."
Airlift is a chronic problem for the Virgin Islands, Kingdom Vacations tour operator Frankie Blankenship, a former St. Croix resident, noted. She put it this way: "It's a Catch-22. You can't get the airlift in St. Croix because you don't have the hotel rooms, and you can't get the hotel rooms because you don't have the airlift."
"Other destinations pay big money to the airlines to provide service," Blankenship said. "They pay millions of dollars in subsidies. The V.I. won't pay a cent. Air is the challenge you'll always have here; it's the frequency-and-cost factor." Nonetheless, she said, her company's air arrival forecast for 2001 was up 59 percent on St. Croix and about 16 percent on St. Thomas from last year's figures. "Last year on St. Croix must have been really bad, though," she remarked.
Wendell Snider, president of the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association, said comments made on Sunday by tour operators "brought a smile to my face." Mark Steward, Travel Impressions Caribbean director, who has been coming to the territory for 15 years, had high praise for some of the Big Island's lesser-known appeals. One he cited: "The infrastructure – the roads are so improved, and it's so clean."
Richards said Tourism is seeking to determine which air carriers are in a position to expand their Caribbean service. She said the Virgin Islands has benefitted from recent national cooperative marketing with American Airlines that has cost the territory nothing.
The Warner Bros. "Looneytunes" summer program includes V.I. sponsorship of Looneytunes.com and sign placement within "Tune-Marooned" episodes, Richards said, as well as extensive video ads and e-mail newsletter mentions.
Stating that the Internet will shape the global economy's future, Richards gave symposium participants a sneak preview of the anxiously awaited Tourism web site, which she said would be accessible soon. She wouldn't name a debut date, saying "a few details have to be worked out."
The Tourism Department contracted IBM to create the web site last year for an estimated $700,000. Amy Atkinson of Martin Public Relations, the government's national public relations agency, said Monday that the start-up date for the site should be "sooner than four weeks."
Richards said the site, with the URL usvitourism.vi, should take the average viewer about 14 minutes to navigate. It includes a comprehensive overview of what the territory has to offer, she said, including hotel links, brochures available for downloading, and separate pages on each island with recent video footage.
The commissioner outlined a marketing plan for the new fiscal year. "We have learned the hard way," she said, "that utilizing painfully finite amounts of capital on advertising is … more profitable than no strategies at all."
Representatives of Martin P.R. and of Ogilvy & Mather/Atlanta, the territory's national advertising agency, outlined their current campaigns. The territory's Tim Duncan TV commercials aired during the NBA season. Atkinson listed a number of "niche" markets she is concentrating on — environmental tourism, yacht chartering, sportfishing, vacations for the disabled, weddings and watersports.
Two network television cooking shows will feature the Virgin Islands this summer, Atkinson said: "Cooking with Feeling," which will air on a hundred CBS stations in North and South America, and Dave Eckert's "Culinary Travels."
Immediately after completing their presentations, the advertising and p.r. representatives left the symposium with the Tourism officials who had been present, reportedly to repeat their information to a separate gathering, at an unannounced site, of the four persons who have agreed to serve on Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's newly created Tourism Advisory Council. All four declined to pay the registration fee of $195 in order to attend the symposium.
The four — former Tourism director Leona Bryant, James O'Bryan, Claire Roker and Harold Baker — are all public-sector appointees. The four persons named by the governor to represent the private sector on the council collectively declined to serve, noting that the governor had not contacted them before announcing their appointment. The territory's business leaders oppose the advisory council concept and are pushing for the creation of a quasi-independent authority to oversee the territory's tourism industry, which Turnbull opposes.
After a lunch sponsored by the West Indian Co., workshop sessions were held Monday afternoon. The off-island participants, who arrived last Friday, were scheduled to conclude their visit with a dinner Monday at Caneel Bay on St. John and a shopping spree Tuesday morning prior to their departure.

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