Jan. 19, 2007 "We need to stop taking things for granted and look for better ways to do what we do before we find ourselves at the bottom of the [tourism] pile," said Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone.
Speaking during a Friday press conference at Havensight to highlight an ambitious and innovative certification program for taxi and tour drivers, Malone argued against complacency when it comes to V.I. tourism.
Tourism is the bread and butter of the islands. It is a highly competitive business. If we are serious about tourism being our No. 1 industry, we have to invest in it," Malone said. "We do not generate revenue just because the sun is in the heavens."
Both Malone, chairman of the Government Operations and Consumer Protection Committee, and Debra Stevens, of UVI's Community Engagement and Lifelong Learning (CELL) program, enthusiastically endorsed the certification initiative and encouraged other drivers to become certified.
Two recent graduates of the course, Rupert Connor and Orlando Donadelle, were in attendance during Friday's press conference. In addition to recommending the program highly, they noted that they've already formed an association of certified tour guides, with an upcoming website so that prospective clients will be able to go online and find a certified driver and guide.
The program is designed to equip tourism professionals with the skills to engage guests in the language and culture of the Virgin Islands and to present an accurate history of the territory. The course covers customer service, island points of interest, presentation skills, history and culture.
The program concludes with a 100-question written exam and an oral exam, in which participants are required to give a presentation on an island site — chosen at random by the instructor during the exam.
"We also change the exam after every course to maintain the integrity of the program," UVI CELL Director Ilene Garner said, adding, "Responsible, accurate tourism begins when tour guides are provided with the educational tools and resources to be successful.
Both Malone and Garner stressed that this is not a mandatory program — as it is on several other nearby tourist destinations, like St. Maarten and Martinique.
Garner said, Lots of things here happen from the [grassroots] level. If I see you with a certification sign, I will want to know where I can get one.
The taxi and tour drivers were actively involved in the design of the program, along with the Tourism Department, the Hotel and Tourism Association, and a V.I. historian.
Speaking of his experience with the program, Donadelle said, I knew a little, but I learned a lot more. I think it is going to really enhance the product that we offer to tourists. They will be much more informed, and they will have a great experience. We are really gung-ho on it. If a driver has pride in what they do, they always want to enhance their product. This is one tool to do that. We are ambassadors, the first and last people tourists see.
I think the business-minded people in our business should and will be interested in it. This is a competitive business we are in and this gives us an edge, said Connor.
Each successful participant in the program will receive a numbered certificate from the university, an ID card and large, yellow oval certification decals to prominently display on their doors.
Of the nearly 1,500 drivers on the island, only 18 have taken the program thus far; but those who have, feel it will give them a competitive edge in the business. The program is also available to drivers who cannot read or write. We want to offer this program to everyone, said Malone.
The next opportunity to take the course will be Thursdays, Feb. 1 through March 8 at the UVI CELL Center. All licensed taxi and tour drivers are welcome to apply.
The course costs $250 but is free to all veterans, as are all CELL programs. Classes will be held on St. John and St. Croix as well.
Course instructor Dr. Valerie George said, In preparing for this course I learned a lot about this place. We are a fascinating destination. I also feel I have learned so much just being with these key ambassadors for our tourism trade. I look forward to working with more of them in the coming months.
Space is limited, if interested call 693-1100 or visit the CELL website.
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