National Parks Provide a $78.8 Million Economic Benefit to Territory

The national parks scattered around the Virgin Islands provide a $78.8 million economic benefit to the territory, a new National Park Service report indicates.

According to the 2012 report, 645,956 people visited parks in the Virgin Islands, spending $78.8 million. Their visits also supported 980 jobs in the territory.

“The national parks of the U.S. Virgin Islands attract visitors from across the country and around the world,” said Stan Austin, NPS Southeast regional director, in a news release. “People have been cruising into these exotic ports of calls on ships for centuries; however, now we’re seeing extended stays that include history and culture, as well as the more traditional beach and water recreation.”

According to the report, national park tourism is a significant driver in the national economy – returning $10 for every $1 invested in the National Park Service.

The V.I. National Park is located on St. John with a facility on Hassel Island, St. Thomas. This park has jurisdiction over Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, and it appears that its statistics are included with the other park.

St. Croix is home to Christiansted National Historic Site, Buck Island Reef National Monument and Salt River Bay National Historical and Ecological Park.

According to the report, of the Virgin Islands parks, the St. John park had the most visitors. The report lists 483,341 for all visits as well as those of nonlocals. This seems to indicate that local residents don’t use the park for recreational purposes, which is untrue.

Joe Kessler, president of the St. John park’s Friends of the Park group, thinks the number of visitors is well under the actual count. He said the Friends did a study issued in 2003 that showed 822,000 visited the park the previous year.

“There are clearly more people here now than then,” he said.

According to the Park Service report, visitors to the St. John parks spent $69.9 million. However, Kessler said that the 2003 study, which involved personal interviews with many visitors, showed they spent $92 million. He said day visitors spent an average of $139 per day, while overnight guests spent an average of $630 a day including accommodations, food, excursions and more.

The Park Service report indicates a total of 875 jobs are linked to the St. John parks. Except for the approximately 50 people who work directly for the park, most are jobs are tied to other facets of the tourism industry and support services.

St. Croix recorded 30,436 visitors to Buck Island with 28,667 from people who don’t live in the Virgin Islands. Christiansted National Historic Site had 126,962 visitors with 106,649 of them by tourists. Salt River recorded a total of 5,217 visitors. Of that figure, 4,382 were from off-island.

Total visitor spending for the parks on St. Croix amounted to $8.8 million. The report indicates the parks’ presence was responsible for 105 jobs.

Joel Tutein, superintendent of the St. Croix parks, thinks the number of visitors is more than the report indicates. However, he said that funding cuts and staff shortages mean that park personnel can’t keep an accurate count of the number of people who use the park facilities.

Tutein said he has no doubt that the parks provide a huge economic benefit to St. Croix.

“Our six concessions with less than 12 boats gross $1.5 million a year,” Tutein said of companies that take visitors to Buck Island.

He said that figure doesn’t take into account the benefit from hotels, car rentals and other tourism-related expenditures by people who visit because St. Croix has national parks.

“Buck Island is still the number one tourist attraction,” he said.

According to Tutein, the Christiansted site and the Salt River Visitor Center, which is only open during the winter months, are also big draws for tourists.

Kessler said that in addition to staff shortages, which make accurate counting impossible, the fact that the parks don’t have entry gates makes it even more difficult.

He also questions the figures for the money spent because he said NPS statistics use “multiplier” national spending costs that are less than costs found in the Virgin Islands because prices are cheaper at other parks.

“Everything here costs more,” Kessler said.

As a comparison, the V.I. Bureau of Economic Research indicates that the territory had a total of 2.6 million visitors in 2012. The Bureau doesn’t break out St. John from St. Thomas statistics, but indicates that 2.3 million people visited those two islands. St. Croix had a total of 274,000 visitors.

The Virgin Islands parks study was part of a national analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey for the National Park Service. The report shows $14.7 billion of direct spending by 283 million park visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park. This spending supported 243,000 jobs nationally – with 201,000 jobs found in these gateway communities – and had a cumulative benefit to the U.S. economy of $26.75 billion.

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