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February Tourism Numbers Exceed Low Expectations

Feb. 25, 2009 — With the economy in the doldrums worldwide, some hoteliers and others who market to tourists are saying that the usually busy February hasn't turned out to be as bad as anticipated.
"We went from catastrophic to crappy," Richard Doumeng said. "I'm happy with crappy."
Doumeng is the manger at Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas and chairman of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association.
Echoing the remarks of several people in the tourism industry, Doumeng said he is breathing a sigh of relief. Before the winter season started, he said, it looked like it would be a disaster.
No doubt bookings are down. With an occupancy rate in the high 70 percent, Bolongo is about 10 percent off last February, Doumeng said.
However, even more so than last season, people are calling up at the very last minute for a room. Travelers reserve their airplane seats in advance but wait until it's time to travel to book a room to see what deals are available, Doumeng said. He's even had people book the morning of the day they arrive.
And unlike previous years when wholesalers sent the most business his way, people are now booking on such websites as orbitz.com and bookit.com.
While tourism may be down, efforts by Gov. John deJongh Jr., Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson Doty and the V.I. Port Authority to convince airlines to increase flights to the territory have paid off, said Doumeng, who also serves as first vice president at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.
Places such as Barbados, St. Lucia and Antigua are really hurting because they have so few flights arriving, he said.
Some hotels have cut prices to bring in guests, but others are holding the line. The Buccaneer Hotel on St. Croix is charging what it planned when it set its room rates before the winter season. Still, the hotel is filling rooms, many of them at the last minute.
"We're doing fairly well, but not as strong as typically," said Vicki Locke, marketing manager.
Although the Best Western Emerald Beach and Carib Beach Hotels on St. Thomas are offering discounts, business is off about 15 percent over the same time last year.
It's not unusual for the hotel to discount 25 to 30 percent on days when bookings are way down, Manager Joel Kling said.
Kling also has offered discounts at the hotel restaurants to keep guests on property. He cut menu prices by 10 percent.
While the Best Western prices fall into the moderate range, properties with lower rates appear to be doing all right.
Melody Smith, marketing manager at Maho Bay Camps and Concordia condominiums and eco-tents on St. John, said both properties were doing well considering the economy. The difference this season has come in the length of stay.
"Instead of seven nights, people are staying five or six nights," she said.
At the Westin Resort and Villas on St. John, Manager David Yamada said the hotel is running around 87 or 88 percent occupancy.
"That's about 5 percent behind last year," he said.
Packages with discounts on features such as car rentals and massages have helped, Yamada said.
At Carringtons Inn on St. Croix, owner Claudia Carrington said she's pleased that the bed and breakfast is doing as well as it did last year. She's seeing mainly repeat guests for February.
"But I'm worried because of the economy," she said.
The inn has rates at the low end of the pricing spectrum, and Carrington said she thinks the budget prices have helped fill rooms. The bad winter, particularly in the Northeast, helped send vacationers to St. Croix, she said.
According to Carrington, her guests eat at a mix of places. Some go for the high-end restaurants, but others seek out the smaller, local spots that serve big plates of food for smaller prices.
Guests' spending cuts are really apparent at breakfast, Doumeng said. They tend not to go elsewhere for their first meal of the day, instead eating at the hotel where they're staying.
This year Doumeng is seeing many guests check in with boxes of cornflakes and bottles of milk in hand so they can have breakfast in their room. Most hoteliers also said guests are spending less on activities and shopping at the hotel gift shops.
However, it's a mixed bag with retailers in downtown areas. On St. John, Caravan Gallery owner Radha Speer said her business was good, perhaps because the prices for her jewelry and gifts are reasonable.
Margo Meacham, who owns Gone Tropical gift shop on St. Croix, said guests from upper-end hotels such as the Buccaneer continue to spend at her store.
"But maybe not as much," she said.
She's also doing well with local residents, mainly because she just unpacked a shipment of new items for sale.
Gone Tropical hasn't seen one cruise-ship passenger, but Meacham said passengers tend to like stores that sell perfume and crystal. And the taxis drop them off near the government parking lot, located at the other end of Christiansted from her Company Street store.
Kling thinks the worst is yet to come.
"The summer and fall will be very tough," he predicted.
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