Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. offered a sober yet upbeat view of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on tourism in a Zoom meeting Wednesday with Frank Comito, CEO and director general of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.
The wide-ranging discussion, part of CHTA’s “Caribbean Tourism Fireworks” series, was held amid the Virgin Islands’ second shutdown since March, shortly after the coronavirus infected 12 residents of the Queen Louise Home for the Aged on St. Thomas, killing four and raising the territory’s fatality total to 14 as of Wednesday.
That outbreak, as well as a surge in cases at the St. Thomas jail, led Bryan to halt leisure travel to the Virgin Islands on Aug. 17, not because the uptick is linked to tourism, but because many are returning to the Virgin Islands as they have the ability to work from home, he said.
“We have not seen it in people dealing with tourists, but in family gatherings and people coming home to work,” said Bryan. Those people may be asymptomatic, but when they reach out to old friends, go to the beach, have rafting parties and then go back to the family home, the cases multiply, he noted.
“We had a good 75-day run,” with the highest occupancy rate in June for the entire Caribbean, Bryan told Comito, but with the recent surge in cases on St. Thomas the government feared overwhelming the hospitals and health care workers.
“Because of how small we are, people work in multiple health arenas,” so their exposure is higher, Bryan noted, and the spread of the virus could lead to a critical manpower shortage at the hospitals, other care facilities and the prison system. In fact, the government has rolled out a program to entice doctors and nurses to come for a complimentary weeklong vacation in return for being available should their help be needed, he said.
“We want to make sure we’re ready to go into season,” said Bryan, noting that many hotels and restaurants traditionally close during the slower months of August through October, so now is a good time to make sure the right measures are in place to fully reopen to guests.
The current shutdown will last at least two more weeks, with Bryan anticipating welcoming tourists back around Sept. 15 with more restrictions in place, though he did not elaborate on what those might be.
“We have to figure out a way forward and to coexist with COVID,” said Bryan, especially when tourism makes up 75 percent of the USVI economy.
Part of that effort is screening incoming passengers with thermal monitors, temperature checks and health questionnaires at the territory’s airports, said Bryan. Now he is working with St. Lucia Prime Minister Allen Michael Chastanet to push for mandatory testing for all air arrivals in the Caribbean, said Bryan.
“That is spot on,” said Comito. “If aviation is to survive, they have to get on board,” he said, noting regulations were instituted after 9/11, yet the Caribbean has recorded 159,887 coronavirus cases and 2,586 deaths as of Wednesday, “and we don’t have a protocol for travel.”
However, despite the challenges, Bryan said bright spots remain, even with the current shutdown. He cited the reopening, since hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, of The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, Bluebeard’s Castle Resort in Charlotte Amalie, The Westin St. John Resort Villas and the Buccaneer Beach and Golf Resort on St. Croix, which has kept its doors open by catering to relief workers helping to rebuild the island.
While the owners of Caneel Bay Resort on St. John remain mired in a dispute with the federal government over their lease and hurricane repairs, and the Marriott on St. Thomas has yet to reopen after the pandemic stalled its storm renovations, “our villa business is through the roof. Our charter business is through the roof,” said Bryan. The Virgin Islands “got a lot of love and appreciation” for giving boaters safe harbor when other islands turned them away due to coronavirus fears, he noted. That has sparked new business as local excursions have multiplied while the usual destination, the British Virgin Islands, remains closed to visitors.
Then there are the boutique properties – the Company House Hotel and The Fred on St. Croix, for example, with Bryan eager to expand on similar offerings. A Request for Proposal will be issued soon for the 53-room hotel on Protestant Cay in Christiansted Harbor as the lease is set to expire, he said. “We want to get something really nice there.” He also cited “renewed interest in Amalago Bay in Frederiksted,” referring to a resort and casino development that has been in the planning stages since 2006.
The government also is eyeing 400 acres with a sandy beach near Henry E. Rohlsen Airport for development, as well as encouraging more Airbnb properties on St. Croix and in downtown Charlotte Amalie that will give locals more ownership of the tourism product, said Bryan.
A huge piece of the tourism puzzle, however, remains with the return of cruise ships, Comito noted.
“I expect them to come roaring back,” said Bryan. Though he is “worried about the viability of their business” after being sidelined since March. “I have an extreme confidence that the cruise lines are going to step up” and create uniform health and hygiene standards for travel throughout the Caribbean, said Bryan.
In the meantime, Comito wondered about the pandemic’s toll on Virgin Islands businesses and workers dependent on an economy where 75 cents of every dollar generated comes from tourism.
“I often remind the people of the Virgin Islands how fortunate we are compared to the rest of the Caribbean,” said Bryan, referring to federal CARES Act funding that included, among other measures, one-time stimulus checks of $1,200 for many, $600 per week in unemployment insurance benefits for individuals, $120 million in payroll protection for businesses and utility bill relief of $250 per household and $500 per business.
Though he acknowledged that “Tax Day next year is going to be disastrous,” with so many still unemployed, “we’re still going,” he said. “We were very fortunate in getting CARES Act funding from the U.S.”
As for what keeps him up at night, “I just don’t want people to die,” said Bryan. “Getting COVID is not the problem. Dying from COVID is. What you have to manage is that people don’t die.”
Still, “we are hopeful and confident we are going to make it through this,” said Bryan. “Without a doubt, we are going to remain a premier destination.”
Wednesday’s discussion can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/CaribbeanHotelAndTourismAssociation.