In the heyday of Virgin Islands tourism in the late 1980s, the idea of attracting Japanese tourists to the territory seemed to be a no-brainer. Japan's economy was thriving, and its populace was strong on sophisticated travelers in search of exotic new destinations to explore.
The V.I. government sent trade and cultural exchange missions off to Japan, and reciprocal groups came to the Virgin Islands. The University of the Virgin Islands offered courses in Japanese, and a number of hotel executives were studying the language. Videos touting the territory's largest hotel and its deep-sea fishing were produced with narration in Japanese and travel features were placed in the nation's magazines. A Japanese couple opened a yachting business here to cater to their countrymen, and a hotelier took the lead in developing a Japanese Cultural Society.
However, no air carrier from Japan ever flew any closer than Atlanta. And with Hurricane Hugo and then Hurricane Marilyn, along with a downturn in Japan's own economy, the dreams never quite got off the ground.
But Monday, Japan's consul-general for the U.S. district based in New York visited St. Thomas to say his office stands ready to reopen dialogue, at least on the level of cultural exchange — and who knows where that might lead?
Takekazu Kawamura made it clear in a meeting at the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce offices that he had "no suggestions" on how the Virgin Islands might address its lack of tourism, lack of advertising to attract tourism and other economic ills. Other than noting that the tourism/promotion problem is "a chicken and egg situation," he said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on such matters.
He did say he understood that the territory has suffered not only the physical damage of two severe hurricanes and several lesser ones but also the effects of rumors in the travel industry.
One local representative at the meeting, West Indian Co. Ltd. chief executive Edward Thomas, recounted that just last year in New York he walked into a travel agency on a whim and said he wanted to vacation in the Virgin Islands. "Oh, no, you don't!" he said the agent replied, telling him the islands had been trashed by hurricanes.
Although he was shocked at the time, Thomas said, he quickly realized that the reason for the agent's ignorance was "because we have had no advertising."
Also at the meeting was L'Hotel Boynes owner Sam Boynes, who founded the V.I. Japanese Cultural Society in 1991 and the next year was part of a V.I. delegation to Japan led by then-Commissioner Eric Dawson of the Economic Development and Agriculture Department, under which the Tourism Division then fell.
Boynes told Kawamura the society was formed "to establish relationships with the people of Japan and to show our respect for your culture."
He noted that the group has been inactive since he stepped down as president to focus on his hotel responsibilities. But "we will revive that again," he said.
He also expressed the hope that a growing Virgin Islands tourism Internet presence will compensate for inadequate global marketing in recent years and noted local industry concern about the reopening of Cuba to American tourism.
The chamber meeting was also attended by the owners of Sushi by Sato, Naimo Sato and his wife, Akiko, who recently opened a restaurant and sushi bar aboard the old Puzzles riverboat tied up at the Saga Haven Marina. The couple came to St. Thomas in 1991 to set up their Sato Caribbean Yacht Cruise business. Sato noted that while tour agents in Japan had begun marketing package tours that included visits to the Virgin Islands in the early 1990s, these were suspended in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
Thomas said the global market "banana wars" have had the effect of encouraging international investment in other Caribbean islands to develop tourism as an alternative economic base — a trend that can only impact negatively on the Virgin Islands.
He also pointed out that while cruise ships are bringing more and more day-trippers to the territory, hotel business has slipped significantly. He said the two sectors now bring about equal revenues into the territory, but "the hotel sector — that's where the money should be. Hotel business should bring three times the amount into the economy."
Kawamura, who holds the diplomatic rank of ambassador, said that New Jersey is in his area, too, and that the state "is very keen to invite Japanese investors."
He said his office stands ready to assist a reactivated V.I. Japanese Cultural Society by providing materials and planning assistance, and to work with a local liaison to arrange cultural exchange visits and possible exhibition tours to the territory.
He, his wife and two vice consuls, Shiochi Nagayoshi and Koji Saito, arrived on St. Thomas on Sunday afternoon for a two-day visit. They also paid courtesy visits Monday to Gov. Charles Turnbull at Government House, administration and faculty members at the University of the Virgin Islands and officials of the Tourism Department.
Their trip to the Caribbean included similar courtesy calls in Puerto Rico.