March 24, 2004 A report from the Bureau of Economic Research indicates that the tourism numbers for the U.S. Virgin Islands in January 2004 were mixed. Beverly Nicholson, president of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association, said that while the numbers are good for St. Thomas/St. John, "St. Croix continues to struggle."
According to Lauritz Mills, the agency's director, visitor arrivals in January were up 8.6 percent territorywide over the previous January. This breaks down to an increase of 12.6 percent for St. Thomas/St. John but a 42 percent decrease for St. Croix.
"There were simply no cruise passengers," Mills said.
Mills said that a total of 281,606 people visited the territory in January compared to 259,278 in January 2003.
Currently Mills does not have a clear picture of the hotel occupancy rate. Mills said that the numbers submitted by many hotels are inaccurate. The data shows that the hotel occupancy rate in the territory dropped by 3 percent, but the number of hotel guests grew by 9.2 percent.
"This contradiction points to a weaknesses in the data collection, particularly with check-ins and check-outs," Mills said.
According to the bureau's statistics, the hotel occupancy rate was down 4.8 percent in St. Thomas/St. John, but up 3.1 percent in St. Croix.
"That doesn't mean we're doing well," countered Claudia Carrington, the owner of Carringtons Inn in St. Croix and the treasurer of the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association.
That said, Carrington noted that January was a good month for her, while February was excellent. She said the five rooms at her bed and breakfast were about 70 to 80 percent full, which was the best she's ever done.
Beverly Nicholson, president of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association, an umbrella organization for the St. Croix and St. Thomas/St. John associations, said that for the first quarter, which began in January, the hotel occupancy rate in St. Thomas/St. John ran 75 to 85 percent, while St. John had a 90 percent occupancy rate.
"We certainly have seen an increase in arrivals for the first quarter," she said.
She also said that hoteliers are charging more this year for their rooms. While occupancy rates may have been high last year, hotels were forced to cut rates to fill rooms.
Part of the problem comes from the elimination of the St. Croix leg of a U.S. Airways direct flight to St. Thomas. Nicholson said this had a big impact on St. Croix's higher end properties like the Buccaneer Hotel and Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino.
Cruise ship arrivals were up but only in the St. Thomas/St. John district, since no ships called in St. Croix. The number of cruise ship passengers who visited St. Thomas/St. John in January stood at 223,648 compared to 194,599 a year ago. This represents a 14.9 percent increase.
Mills said 125 cruise ships visited St. Thomas/St. John in January, an increase of 21.4 percent over last January when 103 visited. Six called in St. Croix last January.
Across the territory, air arrivals grew by 3 percent over the previous year. The growth in St. Thomas/St. John increased by 2.7 percent, with 47,020 people visiting in January compared to 45,778 the previous January. St. Croix saw an increase of 6 percent, with 10,938 arriving in January compared to 10,318 the previous January.
While Nicholson said that restaurant owners and shopkeepers in St. Thomas report that business is good, at least one St. John store owner has seen a dramatic shift in her business this winter.
Kate Campbell, owner of the Pink Papaya gift shop in Cruz Bay, said that people are not spending as much. However, since St. John is very busy, an increase in the number of customers over last year makes up for the decrease in spending.
She suggested that people are paying more for necessities like lodging and food, so they don't have much left to spend on souvenirs and gifts.
"We've had to change our inventory," she said, noting that she now carries more items priced $20 and under.
Peter Jackson, who owns Coki Beach Dive Club in St. Thomas, agrees that visitors are now more budget conscious. He said he has seen some cruise ship passengers take the bus from Havensight to Coki rather than pay for a taxi.
And, the number of people going diving is decreasing. He speculated that cruise ship passengers see St. Thomas as a shopping destination, so they go diving elsewhere.
He also noted that since the closure of Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in nearby Puerto Rico, the island is no longer a popular liberty port for sailors. This means he's lost that business, too.
"We're down from last year, and that year was down from the year before," he said.
Carrington sees the Internet as the key to filling her B & B. She said that she recently had visitors from as far away as Scotland, and last week the guests were mostly from Illinois.
"I can't imagine how I would have done it without the Internet," she said.
Carrington said that the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association's recent partnership with the St. Thomas/St. John Hotel and Tourism Association is already paying off.
However, while the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association umbrella provides much-needed staff, it can't provide money for advertising.
"We have to figure out how to make people know there is a St. Croix," she said.
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