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Charlotte Amalie
Saturday, March 2, 2024


Two decades ago, tourism was in its heyday in the Virgin Islands, and the government did its part toward fostering same through a tourism director who functioned within the Department of Commerce.
About a decade ago, the department was reorganized into the Department of Economic Development and Agriculture, still encompassing tourism, which still had a director in charge.
In the last administration, in yet another reorganization, the government acknowledged that tourism is at least as important to the territory as agriculture and licensing and consumer affiars and created a Department of Tourism, with, of course, a commissioner of tourism in charge.
On the face of it, this would seem to have been a step forward, giving the territory's economic lifeblood the attention it had long lacked.
Unfortunately, Tourism is a department not only of tourism. It's the whole former ED&A except for agriculture, which was spun off into what really is its own department with its own commish. Hence, within Tourism we find, among other things, the Industrial Development Commission, the Bureau of Economic Research, the Small Business Development Agency and the Office of Film Promotion.
Thus, the commissioner of tourism is not only in charge of tourism. The job description includes chairing not only the IDC but also the Port Authority board and, presumably, having expertise in both areas, and attending an awful lot of meetings on topics other than tourism. This is counterproductive in a jurisdiction where overseeing the government's involvement in tourism is in itself more than a full-time job.
Now, let's deal with personalities.
From the early '80s until five years ago, tourism in the Virgin Islands was identified worldwide with one person: Leona Bryant, who as director collected award after national and international award for the professionalism, perseverance and panache she brought to her job. She was a hard act to follow, as mainland just-comes David Edgell and then his associate Wylie Whisonant would discover. Or maybe they never did discover it. At any rate, with a Democratic administration coming in, appointee Whisonant was out, and to all appearances nobody much missed him after he was gone. But somebody had to be in charge, and there it was, payback time.
Cain Magras, named commissioner-designate, brought no hospitality industry operational, marketing or management background whatsoever to the position. His only qualification for the job was that of being an old pol and public office holder of the Democratic persuasion.
Ditto for Monique Sibilly-Hodge, named assistant commissioner, except that the old pol and public office holder in her case was Derek Hodge. Little more than a year ago, Hodge,who as immediate past lieutenant governor was the presumed standard-bearer of the Democratic Party, announced at a press conference that he would not run for governor against incumbent Roy Schneider — because his wife did not want a life in the political limelight. She was there and affirmed that it was so. (Never mind that many saw it as a lame excuse for fear of failure in a bid against the seeming shoo-in for re-election. Foresight is not always a wonderful thing.)
Now, Magras is out; why is irrelevant in the big picture. Sibilly-Hodge as assistant commissioner is now acting commissioner because, as the governor put it, somebody needs to be in charge of the office while there is no boss. Her first high-visibility act: flying to San Antonio on behalf of the people to praise Tim Duncan.
The need for an expert, widely respected commissioner of tourism is critical if the territory is to find a way out of its economic abyss. But the ideal candidate to fill the job as now structured does not exist. The job must be restructured. That will take time. We cannot wait until then to have someone in charge who is capable and inspires confidence.
Three suggestions: First, entice Leona Bryant back (with whatever it takes) as tourism director emeritus and get her expertise working for her people again. Second, call upon the one Tourism person in the last administration still collecting kudos for her accomplishments, such as bringing Sinbad's funky fest to St. Thomas. Never mind that Judy Watson is the ex-guv's sister- in-law and got the job as patronage in the first place. The lady delivered, and we need help. Third, retrieve Bob Siefert, who left a long career in resort management to work on increasing airlift in the last administration. With the change of administration, Siefert immediately went out and started a hospitality industry support business; like the others, however, he could be persuaded to put his expertise back to work for the territory on an interim basis.
To do what? Embark on a real, realistic and long-overdue collaboration with the territory's private sector hospitality industry — which has survived for a decade, through two once-in-a-century hurricanes, in spite of its government, but just barely. In the process, search within its ranks for the leader willing and able to assume direction of a new public-private partnership that exemplifies understanding on the part of government of the need to make that partnership work if the territory is to stay afloat.
For this to be possible, Tourism must have its own operation simply because tourism is so dominant and so demanding. At the same time, Economic Development (encompassing IDC, BER, Film and also Licensing and Consumer Affairs for starters and merging the SBDA with the SBDC at the University of the Virgin Islands) needs its own operation so that planning and implementation of growth-targeted public policies can take place, and so that action plans can be developed and implemented to attract and sustain new business initiatives in the territory.
The Tourism Department should have a seat on the Port Authority board and probably also on the IDC, but it should not be held by the commissioner, nor should the Tourism person by fiat chair either entity.
The government must recognize in word and deed that the private sector represents its only road to sustainable success. Any expert consultant (beginning with top administration aide Rudolph Krigger in his paper prepared for the ill-fated UVI symposium on fiscal deficits last year) will tell you that the only way out of the economic mire is to adopt and implement public policies targeted to economic growth in the private sector. This refers to both viable existing enterprises and new ventures to be developed.
A turnaround is crucial. A decade ago, one of the territory's leading jewelry businesses had eight outlets; today, it has three and a significantly shrunken work force. Downsizing of that sort in a community of this size is disastrous if there is no new development to take its place.
A healthy private sector economy will mean for the government increased corporate income and gross receipts revenues, increased employment, increased productivity, and increased personal income tax revenue. It will further — and this is critical — provide an expanded work force base to absorb productive personnel downsized out of a bloated and bankrupt government payroll.
Editors' note: Jean Etsinger, a 17-year resident of St. Thomas, was the founding editor of the St. Thomas-St. John Vacation Handbook, the official visitor guide of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association in 1991-94, and was the editor of the Virgin Islands Business Journal in 1987-90.

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