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Beyond Paradise: Experts Call for New Approaches to Attract Tourists

March 28, 2008 — Marketing the "sun and the sea" is no longer enough if the territory wants to remain competitive in the global tourism market, experts said Friday.
Instead, they said, more emphasis has to be placed on the development of new activities for visitors, along with customer training and service for local employees.
It's not that tourism numbers are on the decline — in fact, figures provided by the Department of Tourism show steady growth over the past three fiscal years, and are projected to keep climbing during FY 2008 with 2.7 million visitor arrivals and $18.1 million anticipated in hotel occupancy tax revenues. But new initiatives — such as a historic and religious tour of St. Thomas — would provide visitors with another way to view the territory's rich history and culture, said Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty and a panel of other tourism representatives on Friday during a meeting of the Senate Economic Development and Agriculture Committee.
"With major regional developments in St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Anguilla — along with destinations like Las Vegas and Disney World, which constantly upgrade their products — we must take these challenges seriously," Nicholson-Doty said. Other regional locations are paying upwards of $500 million to secure additional flights for visitors, and are making various infrastructure investments and offering visitors more options for even the most basic of amenities — such as public transportation, she said.
However, continuous investment in the territory's tourism product requires more money, she added. Planning for additional flights, for example will continue to remain a "major obstacle" if funding isn't factored in for the ever-rising cost of fuel.
"Marketing any destination in the present economic climate is challenging, and even more so for one with 95 percent of its business coming from the mainland," Nicholson-Doty said. "The mortgage crisis, pain at the pump and a plummeting dollar continuously remind us that our marketing approach must be flexible, and communication with our partners is of paramount importance."
While the department is continuing to expand its international marketing efforts to countries like Denmark, Italy and Sweden, Nicholson-Doty said, she made it clear that any new initiatives must yield a "reasonable return" on any future investments. Looking locally, Nicholson-Doty said there is also a need to ensure that each of the territory's islands is "uniquely" branded — particularly St. Croix, whose ailing cruise-ship industry continues to lag.
Senators and representatives of the territory's taxi industry had their own branding ideas, such as a V.I. reggae festival, and more certification classes for local tour guides, who, they said, serve as "the territory's ambassadors." Senators also emphasized the need for more of a partnership between the Tourism and Education departments, which could teach and train students to eventually take over the local hospitality industry.
Meanwhile, Tourism is pushing its investment dollar to the max with new efforts in public relations, partnerships with top magazines and target branding of specific niche audiences, such as new couples and mothers. Promotion packages and other incentives have also been top revenue producers, while a restructuring of the department's sales division is putting more representatives in virtual offices instead of "brick and mortar" ones, Nicholson-Doty said.
Present during Friday's meeting were Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Basil Ottley Jr., Ronald E. Russell and James Weber III.
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