We have two weeks left in our local tourist series after this. Launched the first week of May, I hope the almost-weekly summer articles have given you as much to think about as they have me. There have been a few surprises I wanted to address before wrapping up.
The first was the continued misunderstanding of what the series was about. It is not a tool for tourists to sound off nor to build a better tourism product — although both may be byproducts. The idea is for you, a person living in and/or caring deeply about the Virgin Islands, to give your impressions of what is going well in the territory and what could go better.
We made up the term “local tourist” because I hoped we could look at our islands with the fresh eyes of a first-time visitor.
But to reiterate, the goal was never to give voice to outside influences for a better tourism product. The goal of these articles was to give voice to you for a better local experience. Vox pop, they call it: The voice of the people.
The second surprise I got in fielding your many comments was how few touched on education. No one wrote in about the need for vocational schools. If we aren’t training hospitality workers, how can we complain about poor service? How can we complain about a lack of job opportunities for local youth? There’s a tendency to see mainland transplants as job stealers. But what are we doing to fill those vacancies?
It’s easy to point to Cruz Bay and wonder where all the locally-owned and operated restaurants have gone. It certainly disheartened me the last time I was there. But literally, no one wrote in saying it was a problem. Restaurant patrons around the world are forming a more sophisticated palate. What are we doing to keep up? What are we doing to put our unique V.I. culture on the plate?
I don’t know what the legislature or whatever entity can do to promote locally-owned businesses over chains and corporate-owned entities, but I know I try to shop local. I shun imported foods like apples for local fruit. But at the same time, the days of the locally-owned hardware store and grocer are dwindling. Local farmers have it especially hard. So, where can we build local expertise? Are we training contractors, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, and other skilled labor locally, or do those people have to go off-island?
I was surprised no one brought it up.
Thirdly, one or two people wrote in about abandoned properties. I was sad, to say the least, that the proposed solutions were to fine, seize, and resell these properties. Shouldn’t we first advocate for the owners to retain and redevelop them? Many times family properties get tied up in messy legal wrangling. Grandmother dies, and it’s unclear who she’s left the land to. Generations fight over it and fail to pay the property taxes. All the while, the family home falls into disrepair. Maybe a hurricane damages it, and now no one wants to pay to fix up something they aren’t sure they own.
When we lose historic homes, it isn’t just a tragedy for the family involved. It’s a loss for all of us.
Go up on Government Hill in St. Thomas and look down on the Garden Street valley. Garden Street was so named because once upon a time, it was the most beautiful area you could hope to see. It’s still a fine neighborhood but isn’t the beauty it could be. Many of the great houses that once made the area so fine are gone. They’ve fallen in on themselves.
A historian friend and I stood across the street from one such home years ago, watching it burn. Vagrants had made it home for some time, and one eventually succeeded in destroying the century-plus-old building. Everyone loses.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could work to identify the families behind these buildings, set up some sort of legal services to straighten out ownership, and work to resolve back taxes and other burdens? Even if no one ever lived there again, wouldn’t it be nice if the rotting hulks that have become health hazards and eyesores across the territory were redeveloped into public spaces? Imagine that crumbling property you pass every day was an after-school tutoring center, or a cultural heritage museum, or a greenhouse, or a distribution point for local farmers? Imagine if that broken great house or sugar mill were suddenly a low-income apartment building or drug treatment center? How about a vocational school?
Close to 20 years ago, H. Lavity Stoutt Community College in Tortola took over a disused building on upper Main Street and opened a little patisserie. Culinary students learned on the job. They hired locally to run the cash register and wait tables. It was an absolute delight frequented by folks hustling to and from work or bandaged patients from the Bougainvillea Clinic sipping coffee while their facelifts and nose jobs healed. It was such a win-win-win. I have no idea if it is still open.
We needn’t seek to chisel each other. We can uplift each other. We don’t need to feed real estate speculators. We can feed our neighbors.
Lastly, I was truly surprised how many people took the time to write in. There were so many great comments and suggestions that it was difficult to get to them all. There were also loads of truly off-topic emails — stories and reflections worthy of a read but not really fitting for this series. I do appreciate your time and efforts. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for caring about the Virgin Islands, be it your home or your home away from home.
If you have missed any of our previous “local tourist” articles, find them in the links below. Next week we’ll follow up on some transportation issues and then finish with your thoughts on the territory’s roadways.