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DIFFERENT CONCLUSIONS DRAWN FROM STATISTICS

Aug. 23, 2002 – Recently published tourism statistics from the Bureau of Economic Research that indicate tourism dropped by 7.8 percent in the first six months of 2002 compared with the previous year have prompted a war of words from a couple of quarters.
For starters, Lauritz Mills, who heads the Bureau of Economic Research, sent out a press release saying, in essence, wait a minute, things aren't as bad as they seem.
"Let's put it in perspective," she said in a Source interview.
She said that across the Caribbean, tourism fell by double digits following Sept. 11. And she said that until September 11, Virgin Islands tourism was strong.
Thanks to a healthy winter, spring and summer in 2001 that offset plummeting figures after Sept. 11, overall tourism increased by 5 percent for 2001. While the number of cruise ship passengers increased by 7 percent for all of 2001, the number of air arrivals dropped by 3 percent.
Mills press release was followed by one from gubernatorial candidate John de Jongh that said the figures don't lie.
"We're in trouble and those at the top refuse to acknowledge it," deJongh said, calling for the creation of a Tourism Authority. "We need someone in authority who understands the basics of a tourism economy and who knows hwo to partner with all components of the industry…the airlines, the cruise ship companies, the hotels , the travel agents, the charter boat companies andall other the impacthe thi smost important segment of our economy."
The statistics reflect the downturn in the economy after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the plummeting stock market and the fact that major corporations are laying off workers left and right.
Bob Siefert, president of the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association and manager at the Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino, said that "bullet-proof" resorts like tony Caneel Bay Resort in St. John, Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda and the Four Seasons Resort in Nevis aren't affected, but places like the Divi suffer because their middle-income guests are worried if they'll have jobs next month.
And he said the fact that Carnival Cruise Lines has gone public with its departure from St. Croix due to crime problems hasn't helped.
A look at the January to June figures for 2002 and 2001 show that St. Croix took the biggest hit, with air arrivals down 11 percent over the previous year. In St. Thomas/St. John, the figure fell by only 4.4 percent.
Cruise passenger arrivals fell for those same six months by 28.7 percent over the year before in St. Croix, with the number dropping by 8.7 percent in St. Thomas/St. John.
And the hotel occupancy was down 8.1 percent in St. Croix for the June to July period compared to the previous year. In St. Thomas/St. John, the figure fell by 1.8 percent.
Since St. Thomas/St. John numbers are lumped together, the figures may not reflect St. John's reality. Kathy McLaughlin, who heads the St. John Accommodations Council, said that while January looked a little soft compared to the January before, bookings were strong throughout the spring.
"I did know we had a lot more last minute bookings," McLaughlin said. And McLaughlin said that she and other vacation villa managers were occasionally forced to come up with discount prices to fill the villas.
McLaughlin's remarks reflect what hoteliers said throughout the winter and spring season – that people were waiting until right before their departure to book to see what sales materialized, and of course, if it was safe to fly.
However, Richard Doumeng, former president of the St. Thomas/St. John Hotel Association, said given what the industry expected after Sept. 11, the winter season turned out better than expected.
The St. John vacation villa managers were joined by hoteliers across the territory in slashing prices.
"It's a double whammy," Siefert said.
Siefert said that a Virgin Islands government sponsored promotion gave guests the fourth night free, a 35 percent discount on the room rate and a $100 gift certificate that cost hoteliers $50 helped fill rooms but didn't generate as much revenue as would rooms sold at the usual rate.
Doumeng said that a look at the back page of the "New York Times" shows that rates at the upscale Renaissance Grand Beach Resort were lower than the more-middle of the road Bolongo Bay Beach Resort and Spa, which Doumeng manages.
"That's not good for the Renaissance and it's not good for Bolongo," Doumeng said.
The prognosis also appeared to be poor for improvements in the upcoming winter season.
"We’re not seeing anything," Siefert said.
As for Doumeng, he's not worrying yet. He said that long before Sept. 11, the travel industry created a "society of procrastinators and bargain hunters."
"It's not unusual to pick up 30 to 35 percent of the occupancy rate for the month in the month," Doumeng said.
David Yamada, who heads the St. Thomas/St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, and the organization's director, Beverly Nicholson, were both off island on Friday.
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