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HomeNewsArchivesUNOFFICIAL TOURISM SITE CAUSES CONCERN

UNOFFICIAL TOURISM SITE CAUSES CONCERN

July 5, 2001 – No, the Virgin Islands Tourism Department has not launched its long-awaited web site yet.
When you visit the site "cover page" at www.usvitourism.vi, you get the same message that's been posted there for weeks: "Coming soon … The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism website is currently under renovation. We will be online soon, so we urge you to visit us again!"
There is, however, a new V.I. tourism web site, at www.vitourism.com. It was launched on Emancipation Day — July 3 — and has mistakenly been thought by many to be the government site.
The person who created the site, St. Thomian Alma Francis, says no one is more surprised at this than she is.
"I've been getting congratulatory e-mails all day saying 'It was worth the $750,000,'" she said Thursday, "and I'm saying, man, it took me about a month and it cost me about $75."
Over the last two days, she said, her web page has gotten "over 4,000 hits."
Francis says she sent out an e-mail letter to "friends and family" announcing the new site, "and I guess people started to forward them." The cyber-coconut telegraph was soon humming. The announcement was of the "official launch of vitourism.com, the U.S. Virgin Islands Premiere Website."
Beverly Nicholson, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, said Thursday that she got the e-mail announcement from "a board member."
Checking out the site, Nicholson said, she realized it "didn't look anything like the home page for the official site" that she had just been shown on Monday by Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards.
Trudie Prior, general manager of Coral World Marine Park and Undersea Observatory, also got a copy of the "official launch."
Prior said she was "shocked when I first received the e-mail and thought it was the new Tourism Department site, because of the content and errors." When she learned it was not the government site, she added, "I realized we still have a major problem on our hands, because there will be confusion." She faulted the commercial site for "a very bad impression of the Virgin Islands because of the typos and other errors and omissions."
Charles Balch, who teaches web page design at the University of the Virgin Islands, at first thought it was the official Tourism site, too, and was disappointed. His overall impression was "that the equivalent … could have been created using local talent in a week for a few thousand dollars." Only later did he discover how close he was to being right.
What's posted, and what's not
The new site offers a variety of information, not all of it tourism-specific.
The "tourism" section has no lists and no links. The text notes that "The number of stay over visitors fell to around 500,000 from over 700,000 at the beginning of the 1990s with hotel occupancy rates averaging little more than 50%."
The narrative of the "beaches" section mentions three by name and notes that beach activities range from "creating your fantasy wedding on the shorelines of Magens bay to deep see [sic] diving at Coki beach to just bathing in the sun at Vessup bay."
There's a "business" section unrelated to tourism and a "cuisine" section that carries a Recipe of the Month. The "moving" section states that calling a water truck can cost $190 to $365 and adds: "Hurricane season makes up for all the great weather the Virgin Islands has to offer. Generally the better the view the more threat a hurricane will be to your residence."
A Weekly Poll initially asks visitors on which island they would love to vacation — St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, Jamaica, Aruba or Tortola.
Banner space on the top right of the home page alternates between a public service announcement for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and an advertisement for Columbian Emeralds [sic]. Of the jewelry spot, Francis said, "I designed that ad," and it was not contracted by Colombian Emeralds. The banner is linked to a site of the jewelry retailer. "Instead of just putting in [text] links, I designed some that I made visual," she said.
Many of the pages are headed by a design feature resembling the Virgin Islands Playground visitor guidebook logo — the words "Virgin" and "Islands" separated by a bright pink hibiscus bloom.
Balch called the "Topp Talk" radio show Thursday morning and asked about the government Tourism site. "About 20 minutes later, two people called and said it had been launched and said they had received e-mails of the official launch," he said. Later in the day, he learned the truth.
Francis said she heard the callers referring to her site as the official Tourism site but didn't call the radio station herself to offer clarification. "I've been keeping it low key," she said. Then, she added, "I don't have a choice at this point. I have to clarify it."
She said she built the site for two reasons: "I purchased the domain name in 1999 and I always wanted to build a site to promote the Virgin Islands, period. But I'm also trying to do a music festival here next year, and I found there was no site I liked to refer to. A lot of the sites I saw were nothing I would like to go back to."
A site with 'things for people to do'
People came to the territory for Sinbad's festival in 1999 "because they were following him," Francis said. But for her "V.I. Music Jamz" project, she said, she needs to give potential attendees a reason to want to come to the Virgin Islands. She wanted a site with "things for people to do." So she came up with "Ms. Mango," who answers e-mail requests for advice, and a form for visitors to send in their own "mele" to be posted on the site.
Francis said she first got interested in web design four years ago when she was working at the Westin Resort "and I became so fascinated with marketing — how through visualization you can influence people." At her Contant home, apart from her day job as a government office worker, she said, "I sat in front of my computer and taught myself graphic arts, taught myself how to build web sites, taught myself how to do TV commercials."
According to Francis, she finally "decided to stop procrastinating about a month ago." She said she chose the July 3 launch date because "I was looking at it as 'I'm finally being emancipated.'" She said she's mystified by the confusion over her site. "The e-mail letter I sent out nowhere near had 'Virgin Islands Tourism Department' anywhere," she said. "Because people have been waiting for the Tourism site, I guess they just assumed it's that."
The web site carries a credit for Honeydew Advertising. Francis said that's a business she started in 1998. She said there are "at least four people in the business with me, handling marketing and sales and working on the festival."
One local hospitality industry executive who is worried that the public will mistake the new commercial site for the official government one, said, "I'm sure this person knew about the imminent launch of the real Tourism site."
According to Francis, the timing of her launch is unrelated to the pending government page debut. She said she lost her parents "when I was 19 and 20, and I have this mentality that I can't sit around and wait for things to happen."
Balch said, "It is worthy of note that such confusion could not happen if the USVI government actually put up its official site."
The government site has been in the making fo
r about two years. On April 20, Richards said it would make its debut in a matter of weeks. On June 10, she said it would be up in two and a half weeks.
Monique Sibilly-Hodge, assistant Tourism commissioner for the St. Thomas-St. John district, deferred comment on the new, non-government site to Richards Thursday. Richards did not return telephone calls.

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