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Winter Tourism Season Looking Good for Hoteliers, Retailers

At the height of the winter tourism season, many hotels are doing well, and the guests are spending at restaurants, gift shops and on excursions, several people in the territory’s tourism industry said this week.
Lisa Hamilton, director of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association, put the occupancy rate on St. Thomas and St. John in the "high 80s and low 90s," percentage-wise.
No similar figures are available for St. Croix, but Hamilton said that projects at the Hovensa refinery are filling hotel rooms. She expects the projects to last through March.
Palms at Pelican Cove on St. Croix is currently filled with Hovensa workers, but manager Julie Printy said the hotel’s contract to house them is up Monday.
"Then business will be picking up with regular tourists," she said.
St. Croix has plenty of visitors this winter season, Printy said. She suggested that last year people were afraid to go on vacation since their jobs were uncertain.
However, in many cases, hotel rates lower than they were in 2008 mean that hoteliers aren’t making as much money.
"It’s a slow progression to get the rates up," Hamilton said.
The year 2009 was a grim year for most of the territory’s hoteliers. To get "heads in beds," as the hotel industry calls it, they cut room rates and added complimentary extras.
Three other factors are helping bring people to the U.S. Virgin Islands this winter: the territory has enough flights, airfares are reasonable, and American tourists don’t need a passport to visit the territory.
Additionally, the economy on the mainland has improved.
"People perceive that the economy is picking up, and they don’t want to give up their vacation," Jennifer McQueen, who handles public relations at the Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, said.
Visitors are also eating out and spending money on vacation extras that help fuel the economy. That wasn’t the case last winter season.
"Spending is way ahead of last year and a little behind 2008," said Richard Doumeng, manager of Bolongo Bay Beach Resort and chairman of the Hotel Association board.
Lime Inn, a Cruz Bay, St. John restaurant, is doing well. Owner Chris Meyer said visitors have a more positive attitude this winter.
"It feels like people are ready to vacation and spend a little money," she said.
Staff who answered the phone mid-day at several St. Thomas gift shops on Tuesday—the day the mega-cruise ship Oasis of the Seas—said to call back later because they were too busy to talk. However, one shop owner said business was up some days and down others.
"We have one or two good days a week," Danny Wadhwani, who owns Shipwreck gift shop in Charlotte Amalie, said.
At Cane Bay Dive Shop on St. Croix, business is good with both cruise ship passengers and hotel guests heading out for scuba excursions. However, manager Tanya Schmidt said that only a few of those customers buy souvenirs like T-shirts once their dive is done.
"They’re pretty much coming for a beach break," she said.
The number of guests arriving at Coconut Coast Villas on St. John is down over last year, but manager Mickey Addison said she’s getting lots of last-minute bookings.
"They’re calling a week ahead of time, and they’re looking for a good airfare," she said.
Additionally, Addison said she’s already getting bookings for next winter, a good sign that the economy is on the upswing.
Doumeng summed it up. "There’s a general sense of relief. Everybody has exhaled. It did bounce back," Doumeng said.

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