Feb. 18, 2003 – St. John is booming, St. Thomas is doing well and St. Croix is a mixed bag, say owners of tourism-related businesses as they check their bottom lines this week, which kicked off with the long Presidents Day weekend.
The week is typically the busiest of the winter season in the Virgin Islands. However, the threat of war coupled with economic hard times is making business owners nervous. And even the snowstorms on the East Coast are a mixed blessing, with air transportation interruptions.
"The storm, war, economic uncertainty. It's not an easy time to travel," said Brian Young, general manager of St. John's Caneel Bay Resort.
Young's comments on the war and the nation's economic woes echo those made by many others. While people are still traveling, particularly to St. John and St. Thomas, business owners are reluctant to predict what lies ahead, since many people now book getaways at the last minute.
"Bookings are coming in slowly," said Chris Goodier, spokeswoman for the Buccaneer Hotel on St. Croix.
Those with full houses on Presidents Day week are pleased, of course.
"We're booked up completely and have been for months and months and will be for months and months," said Robin Clair, manager of the three-cottage Estate Zootenvaal on St. John.
Mary Davis, co-owner of the 15-room Danish Chalet Inn on St. Thomas, said her hotel was filled going into this week. One couple was there on their 19th annual visit, she said.
David Yamada, general manager of the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, said his occupancy is running about 80 percent. A couple of group bookings boosted the figures in recent weeks.
Yamada, who also is president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, said the 80 percent figure is typical of most other St. Thomas hotels, too.
He hopes the East Coast blizzards will have many more people making reservations to escape a bad-weather winter. "Hopefully, we'll see some pickup once they shovel out," he said.
Initially, however, the snowstorms' impact on the territory's tourism picture was negative. Young said guests with reservations for 10 rooms at Caneel Bay were stuck at home Monday because airports were closed.
Goodier said this February is not looking as good as last year's was for The Buccaneer. "We still had rooms available last Friday for this week," she said.
Bob Siefert, general manager of the Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino on St. Croix, said bookings for Presidents Day weekend were good. But many of the customers were local residents who flocked to St. Croix from other islands for the Agriculture and Food Fair and who indulged in a getaway special for Valentine's Day — a $153-a-night room for two including dinner.
Until last week, he said, the hotel's occupancy had been running about 60 percent.
Claudia Carrington, owner of Carrington's Inn on St. Croix, had a similar story. She said this is the first winter that she has actively sought local business.
Carrington expressed surprise that a $270 US Airways fare between New York and St. Croix didn't bring more guests.
Siefert said the Divi is running a special of $1,395 per person for seven nights, including airfare from any city on the mainland.
Things are so bad at the Divi, he said, that he had to lay off staff in mid-season. In fact, he laid off so many that he had to resign as president of the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association because of the demands on his time filling the shoes of laid-off managers.
The government has failed to effectively market St. Croix, Siefert charged, but he also noted that St. Croix doesn't have major chain hotels such as those on St. Thomas and St. John to lure travelers reluctant to book accommodations at a hotel with an unfamiliar name.
"If you're going to spend your money, why take a chance on a non-brand-name hotel?" Siefert said, noting that Marriott has been especially successful at building name-brand loyalty.
Owners of other tourism-related businesses on St. Croix were more upbeat in their assessments of the season.
"We've got to be positive. Things are down all over," said Mark Sperber, owner of Mile Mark Watersports.
Sperber said this week has been booming, especially compared to the last couple of weeks. However, like St. Croix's other visitor-oriented businesses, his took a hit this winter with most of the cruise ships that used to call in Frederiksted abandoning the island.
Robin Catanach at the Coconut Vine clothing store in King's Alley in Christiansted said business has been good. "At least as good as last year," she said.
Frank Pugliese, owner of the Bacchus Restaurant in Christiansted, said he's been doing a bit better than last year. "We don't have the 9-11 issue," he said, referring to last year's tourism fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the mainland.
Al Day, who owns the Charterboat Center on St. Thomas, said he experienced the normal lull after Christmas but things have picked up. "The lull was a little longer and a little luller, though," he said.
There are now more competing businesses on St. Thomas, which is good for the destination but cuts the pie a little finer, Day said.
Many of his guests are also spending less than used to be the case. "They're still coming, but they might just spend one more day sitting on the beach reading a book instead of going out in a boat," he said.
At Caneel Bay Resort, Young said the addition of less-expensive items to the gift shop stock has spurred sales.
Dana Bartlett, who takes guests from both St. John and St. Thomas on Carolina Coral horse rides on St. John, said business has been good. In the midst of difficult times, "lots of families are trying to be as normal as possible," she said, perhaps reflecting a fact that may hold out hope for the remainder of the territory's winter season.
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