Redefining Our Tourism Product

Tourism bus. (Safari photo)

During this uncertain and different way we are adapting as our livelihood since COVID-19, and in our reemergence of business with its underlying premise of tourism being our bread and butter, I question how do we (as leaders, business owners, locals, employees, residents, youth — people of the Virgin Islands) compare to the Caribbean with our tourism product? After recent reads and conversations as well as taking this writing to ourGovernment, namely the Department of Tourism, I share these concerns for our territory, knowing that we’ve opened our doors of welcome but still questioning what do we have to offer:

  1. For me, the entire feel of the Virgin Islands has changed from the late 1980s to present. We know it! Now with the onset and forever change in doing business, our livelihoods and social interaction that this virus has brought to the world alters the dynamics, especially to the travel industry. People when traveling are adding need to the basis of thinking to splurge! This is a time to address/present our tourism product by “redefining our venture.” The majority of conversations that I am a part of state: “We can diversify our tourism product … but it requires more understanding of us to be (action!), to do (action!), to shift our thinking (action!) rather than be subjected to the same presentation. Our constant call, thought process and inclination to say: “Boy, St. Thomas ain’t the same; or we have missed so many opportunities to shine!” … must change for our growth. We ought to resonate a sense of positivity to our spectrum, understanding every component of living and being in these islands affect our tourism product. To facilitate how we refresh and renew our product comes by addressing two major entities of our government’s subsidiaries and their roles to ensure that our tourism product be successful and strongly redefined:

Water and Power – an “elephant-in-the-room” mentality is the best description of our Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority. It is amazing how this agency suffices in a storm without us paying, but when in full operation, they produce alarming rates that seem to make up for lost revenue versus suitable fees. The ramifications of this entity are curtailing businesses to realize gainful profits, for which some have closed; residents pay exorbitant prices full well knowing that our consumption does not equate the monthly fees (because it does not matter being away from home or present, the bill remains as heightened). The question here is, how long will we be able to continue to aid WAPA’s pocket before operations on island come to a halt/to get off their grid; which we know neither is a realistic choice. We cannot continue to do business as existing when we know that today, each day is different. Many people’s dynamics are changing–from their work schedules, to their pay status; what kind of community are we fostering to handle these unjustifiable rates? Previous to the virus, people started marching as a result of the insistent high rates for services when compared to previous and others . . . with this rising pandemic, though the government has aided, what is our long-term effect? How is our government formulating a platform to answer its citizens? This form of utility is a most needed service where businesses are constantly reassessing to operate, and our people month by month are tolerating and figuring how to pay. Though the government has been bailing WAPA, it would be better for WAPA to present a platform to its payers, stating their operational goals and our responsibility to:

Their overall problem of providing power; their goal to make short-term and long-term changes; their request of consumers based on this process; what type of service to expect during this challenging process?

This perspective by WAPA is necessary to prepare business owners and working residents (the tax-paying community) with a mindset to be willing to be a part of a productive unit. For most, this type of understanding is what prepares the attitude for the working class. In order to approach our tourists with zest and enthusiasm, most times it is folks being hopeful that their livelihoods are in order.

Having good customer service, in my book too, surpasses knowing to say please, thanks . . . Today, it relates to a prepared worker from a functionable home (with WAPA being current) counting to meet a powered working environment with their employer so as to perform; this allows them to achieve their main goal—to honor their expenses and ultimately invest/see themselves do what their portion of the tourism product is—rest/relaxation! So, this entity of government must sooner than later realize that their service goes beyond the lights being on but that they too are responsible for providing our means to the end.

Waste Management – is another let down for this community knowing our responsibility to accommodate tourists. Sometimes I wonder for us as residents, do we understand that our islands ought to emulate from the rise to the setting of the sun? To be able to look up, then across the ocean to see it sparkle as jewels, adding to the end of the day with some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world, our cleanliness has the best example. Our natural beauty’s setting is the premise of what defines our product; because it is what most travelers search for. Often, I too ask myself, why is it, comparing to a larger city like Manhattan (22 .82 square miles), whose population and cleanly activities surpass ours; why is our Charlotte Amalie, which is less than a mile, cannot be contained for trash, all the time?

Our Downtown, which is a stop to many visiting tourists should be cleaned on a regular basis and be of better fragrance. In years past, Main Street was hosed down each morning; the need is more necessary now as there are many homeless/vagrants in the area as well as to maintain our enhancement project of beautifully laid cobblestone work. There are competing islands that will give us a run for our monies on how well kept their cities are, and as a matter of fact, their entire islands: Grand Cayman and Curacao are my favorites to compare as an exemplary tourism product; they continue to meet their country’s needs while maintaining decorum.

It is time for us to regroup and take on the effort of having cleaner islands, as we do have an agency with enforcement. How clean we keep our islands should be at the forefront, it represents how those here are living and how they regard their commitment to being prideful. It must be our responsibility to maintain our islands with splendor; cause we are the government!

How we open our doors, as a competitor in this region, is by placing our history first to a “global market!” The saying that “you have to know where you come from to know where you are going” is a critical element to redefining our product. We are one of the beauties in “our” Caribbean that celebrate their history, their conquering ownership(s) yet being distinguished by the known “sand and sea.” Let’s be the one to be chosen for showcasing our rich history as well as stating that you can choose one of three big islands for a “historical” walk, a “historical” drive, or a “historical” sail, adding 50 islands and cays. Our restructuring will also take on strengthening our level of pride, as a continuous welcome to our front door. The Caribbean offers similarities of everything when it comes to c u l t u r e … we are the same, facing the Caribbean Sea and backed by the Atlantic Ocean, conquered by the Christopher Columbus but the difference is in our destination’s heritage of emancipation. I feel that now is the chance to take ourselves seriously, share a rich tourism product through culture, selling itself from the start of the local market to talents and displays by a walk of our streets … Often, a vacation is defined by visiting and touring a city as it becomes a story – what do we wish for ours to be remembered of?

St. Croix/St. John/St. Thomas are all unique and rich in history; all have beautiful beaches but again, how is this combined to exemplify and showcase us as a top Caribbean destination? Longtime ‘Carifest’ has been in conversation (something to revisit with exciting new ideas to make this venture come alive); St. Croix’s agricultural fair is a showstopper; and, of course, our Carnivals … These are some of our present commitments that can be celebrated on a daily. Doing this type of business would also lure many locals, who are gifted in art and culture, to become lucrative entrepreneurs. I am encouraging this affair for us as I visited the Polynesian Cultural Center about 17 years ago (LINK: www.polynesia.com) in Oahu and was in awe at their presentation. What swept me was their heritage, though purchased by America, their loyalty remained to their origination, which has turned in to an income producer. It is by far the best example for us to consider adapting to ‘Carifest’ or whatever program we choose to associate our culture with to drive us in this changed and contemplative economy. I have always wondered how we just talk about our culture and only present it during festive occasions rather than live it! We have to more than think of what our representation for a visitor is but elevate it to be a lingering thought to share with another, revisit on occasions, or perhaps invest in a home or long-term business. For where I am concerned, our culture should jump off viral screens and be tangible – displayed daily or weekly or monthly to start.

Additionally, my enthusiasm for writing comes from a single impression being stirred that the major reason most visitors will be flocking to the Caribbean is the idea that the heat diminishes this virus (for which there is no certainty but most people of today hang on whatever online sources provide). Overall, whatever the true answer is, it is time for us to depend on our culture on a daily in order for visitors to have an idea of what we offer and what we appreciate as being Virgin Islanders, namely me being a St. Thomian. Gone are the days for rushing to Main Street for jewelry; we all know that Online shopping / www… world has changed the dynamics of business … waaaaaayyyyyyy before this virus. The rush to Dronningens Gade (Danish relation to the street name) should be a part of the aforementioned ideals of incrementing our tourism product: a “historical” tour of our city on a daily. Most of us, living in the USVI, are unaware of the significance of our cities Gades/Strades … I am very much certain that travelers in the United States, in especially, affording a ticket at this present time will want to relax and enjoying a walk of our 99 Steps; bask in the sun while sitting at our vast Waterfront; have lunch at Gladys Restaurant; take in a tour at a historical monument, which is featured in so many advertisements, Fort Christian (and it’d be good to upkeep with landscaping this monument, and fulfill the plans of the Veterans Drive project so as to connect it around the VI Legislature); enjoy a Quelbe/Bamboula dance with storytelling at Emancipation Garden or in the same Fort; then, walk further down Queen’s Quarter after strolling through Royal Dane Mall, absorbing its history; be enticed at the Market Square area by encouraging vendors to showcase their local art, plants, foods, etc.; then, return walking up Main Street to purchase a “Duty-Free” necklace to commemorate their days of “in the city” echoed by steel-pan music!

Again, it is time to change how we present ourselves because now represents then for which we will be history too. That brings me to another major concern, Drake’s Seat. Understanding that this property adjoined with Magen’s Bay are a gift in perpetuity, our five-row-seated safaris and calls for larger cruise ships add to the present traffic congestion on a narrow and winding road. And, our on-island development presently surpasses honoring this gift. There should be consideration to reconstruct a portion of that area by broadening rather deepening the look out. As we have authorized larger taxis, which on a given day, only three are a reasonable fit. It is time to revamp that landing to accommodate an in and an out that will still maintain the picturesque views of the beach, cays, St. John and the BVI. This too can allow Magen’s Bay Authority to expand their business by offering locals leased booths for handicrafts – that Flamboyant Tree (and others which were dispersed by local Virgin Islanders) at the corner of Drake’s is a perfect example of something that is local to our region and blossoms from Spring through Summer with resilience and beauty to showcase on t-shirts, totes, mugs, fans, etc.; along with a picturesque background for awesome beach views.

Noting all this, our tourism product should shift to creatively present the USVI by developing ads individually or collectively as we compare “historical” cities of the islands (Christiansted, Frederiksted, Cruz Bay, and/or Charlotte Amalie) and develop as historical tours – and this can be expanded to providing our taxi drivers with the knowledge for connectivity. Moreover, we can encourage “historical” sailing tours, as the majority of our historical monuments—Fort Christiansvaern, Annaberg Ruins, Fort Christian can be seen from the ocean, with treasure hunts (that being a jewelry store in the city of any island). Another viewpoint arose since publicly sharing this message: To create an annual step-street race (like 8tuff) drawing thousands from around the world—adding to the worth of being very unique, historical, and regarding fitness.

Adding step-street tours with vendors along the way telling stories of the neighborhoods by people who grew up there/their descendants. On a whole, people traveling must be compelled by opportunity for a difference versus us depending on our “Duty-Free” shopping. A more potent question, too, as I present the USA to the VI, why are we are unable to have yearly or bi-annual musical concerts (especially with the number of stars that visit here and invest); are we not owned by a mainland of superstars?!

  1. Now, how we goal set in redefining our tourism product starts with an essential dose of being prideful, we all must assist and be a part of redefining what we have to offer. Whether it be standing on a cause, helping to make a difference, showing/speaking to our leaders with interest about our home, taking this message and adding your own long or short to our elected Governor, addressing Cabinet Members, our the consider of new Senators . . . we have to understand that we must want to make a change, which also answers our call to voting. All opinions count and will foster change to our tourism product, some more simple than others; whatever media you choose, it is important to note its relative to a shift! We all see how easy a viral effect is and how it becomes the choice of what we pick today . . . life has never awaited; however, further down the road does show today’s actions as effects.It is our opportunity to capitalize on a worthwhile product versus miss out . . . We must remember that as in life, our islands benefit others as well as we are benefiting from others. Therefore, we are the necessary resource to redefine our tourism product, and speedily!

Our redefining can be synonymous with the adaptions of this virus: masking, cleanliness, rest and good nourishment; it too goes forward to the mental condition of people living, people visiting, people in consideration of investing in our Territory. I am imploring upon the Department of Tourism to take their recent advertisements to our residents a step forward by setting the precedent of how we do business, especially for customer-service. Our people must understand that thinking for the other person is the new you!

I’ll provide an example: While catching a dollar-bus, I was instructed from the onset to wear a mask from Fort Mylner to Sub Base; however, after passing the police check point at Donoe, the driver became lax. Persons getting on board no longer got the same call as when I previously boarded. When I got off the bus, I asked the driver about informing his riders of the masked requirement. He replied that they could read. I said really, you gave me an order at Fort Mylner knowing there was a police stop at Donoe; but why are you willing to jeopardize your taxi license thinking no enforcement will be further west . . . he then came out and asked the riders to be compliant of the signage.

Bringing this concern to the driver’s attention was as much me adhering. It is the rule; and we must be as one for another to make this difference become a swift change. The point here is realizing that we all are going to have to become, and see ourselves as stakeholders to safeguard our islands for living as well as for one day entertaining down the road. We all can encourage the Department of Tourism to create more media promos for this type of understanding as the awareness need continues to rise in this situation. Too, our Tourism call to being polite should be joined with the need to be safe as well. As much as it is for a person, it is more important that Tourism mandates VI businesses to want to have a staff that initiates pride at the door (it could become an on-island challenge for who has the best business welcome).

Taking on pride is a requirement for us Virgin Islanders (local, resident, visitor, all are alike once you’re here! We need it! Bringing this to light adds to the change in our economy, the change in our socialism, the change in our community, the change in how we communicate. The years back when we, Virgin Islanders, would show/be the difference; or when migrants who had an interest and made investments in our islands are now using the USVI as a back door to America. Having pride seems to be an integral lesson to learn versus an established norm. So, we are to require than encourage the beauty of manners because over the years knowing to say these few words have been depleted from most people’s vocabulary; and it has affected our tourism product with great indifference. We are longing to hear:

Please rephrase your question; how may I help you; we appreciate you visiting our store; though we are out of this product, may I suggest using this item …; sorry, our restroom facility is for business use only; or, thanks for placing your order with … and please drive up to the window!

Though our life span has evolved, we grew up on manners, cleanliness was our discipline, and looking out for one another, which are all now the basic components for living and doing business courtesy of COVID-19. In my view, these ideas and concerns are what investors too consider to grow seeds in our grounds—equating as opportunities and choices to capitalize in a market. Therefore, please consider publishing these concerns on my behalf for our beloved United States Virgin Islands; and as one wanting our communities to be “the” favorable destination in light of this virus . . . At the same time, looking forward to our tourism product benefiting the next for what we offer today.

Desiree M. Francis is a resident of St. Thomas.