Sports tourism got a unanimous boost as a way to improve the tourism industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but the gaming business got a divided reception from about three dozen people taking part in the Department of Tourism’s “visioning” session Wednesday.
Wednesday’s session was held at the University of the Virgin Islands’ St. Croix campus and people took part at the UVI video conferencing centers on St. Thomas and St. John. Earlier sessions this week were held on the other two islands.
The Department of Tourism is holding the sessions to generate public input on a “rolling” five-year plan for developing tourism in the territory. According to Basil Springer, one of the consultants running the session, a “rolling” plan is one that is updated regularly to keep it in line with current circumstances.You focus on next year, he said, but plan for five.
By using a rolling plan, the department won’t be left with a useless five-year plan if conditions change in 18 months, or community support for a product fades or grows. He likened the approach to filing a flight plan for a trip from Los Angeles to Boston. If there’s a storm over Nebraska, the pilot has to change course, not just plow ahead because that’s what the plan said.
Assistant Tourism Commissioner Brad Nugent said getting public input before the plan is created makes sure it’s something the community wants and will support. Government officials don’t have a corner on good ideas, he said, and without the backing of the community, the best plan in the world is useless.
“We plan with the community,” he said. “We don’t plan for the community.”
Wednesday’s session focused on sports tourism, gaming and its impact on tourism, hotel development and research. Previous sessions this week included discussions of the role of the film industry, retail and craft development, cruise lines and transportation, medical tourism and niche marketing.
St. Croix in particular has great potential for sports tourism, the participants agreed. It already has an international reputation because of the Ironman Triathlon and its most fearsome physical feature: the steep, winding hill known as “The Beast.” The 8Tuff Miles race on St. John is another race with an international reputation, drawing hundreds of mainlanders who plan their vacations around the race.
But more can be done, they said. One participant noted that the Dolphins youth swimming team annually brings about 200 swimmers to St. Croix for training and races. With better facilities, that number could be over 1,000, and those athletes rarely travel alone, usually bringing coaches, staff and family, all of whom need places to stay and things to do while on island.
Participants listed these issues to address for promoting sports tourism:
– Creating a hall of fame recognizing the many world class athletes the territory has produced;
– Development of a multi-use sports complex in Frederiksted;
– Developing an all-sports, interactive calendar to show events planned in the territory and providing links to both detailed information about the event and to transportation and lodging information;
– Wherever possible, group rates and packages should be negotiated;
– Sponsorships for events, such as the Rolex Regatta, could help make bigger, more prestigious events possible.
Gambling, on the other hand, received a much cooler reception. While it had its advocates, the consensus was that a much more detailed, independent study of the impact of gambling is needed.
Gizette Thomas, Casino Control Commission chairwoman, said gaming is a multi-billion dollar industry, and even in the territory it has a big impact. In the Virgin Islands in 2011, gaming accounted for $19 million in revenue, generated $2.3 million in taxes, and supported jobs for 200 people, making a total of $5.6 million.
But the nature of the gaming industry and its role in tourism had really changed long before the 1995 law established the Casino Control Commission and laid out how gambling is conducted, according to Anton Kuipers, general manager of the Divi Carina Bay Casino.
In another era, if an American wanted to gamble his choices were to take a trip to Las Vegas, or to a foreign country. Now there is some form of casino gambling in 36 states.
“People can get in a car and drive to a casino,” he said.
So gambling is an amenity, he said, one more thing people can do when they’re on vacation along with shopping, dining, snorkeling and lounging on a beach.
On St. Croix, small local merchants want the addition of Video Lottery Terminal machines similar to those allowed on St. Thomas and St. John. Such a system would provide a revenue stream that would help small businesses survive and grow in difficult economic times, owners argue.
But others contend that revenue St. Croix businesses would generate from VLTs is just shifted from revenue that otherwise would have been spent at casinos.
Other participants worried about the social impact of gambling, and said St. Croix has worked hard to develop a reputation for cultural heritage tourism that could be harmed by an emphasis on gaming. Many of the participants Wednesday argued that the first step is for an independent study of the gaming industry in the territory looking at both the economic and social impacts of gambling.
The sessions conclude Thursday with discussion of geotourism (including environmental, cultural, historic and agricultural tourism), culinary tourism, diving, activities and attractions. Thursday’s session will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the UVI St. Croix campus with St. Thomas and St. John again taking part via teleconference. The sessions are open to any interested members of the public. They can also be viewed online at www.usvitourismplan.com.