Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. declared a state of emergency on March 13, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, over a year later, the tourism industry has emerged from a total shutdown only to be faced with the challenge of inadequate staffing, Lisa Hamilton, president of the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association, told the Senate Economic Development and Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.
Once the governor lifted the territory’s “Safer at Home” status and airlift capacity to the U.S. Virgin Islands increased exponentially, travelers began flooding the airports. At the start of March 2021, Hamilton said, the islands experienced an extraordinary demand for accommodations, in part because other Caribbean destinations have remained restrictive toward visitors.
“As a result, staffing is a major issue,” Hamilton said. According to her, the staffing problem is attributed in part to employees who do not wish to come off unemployment because they “have no incentive to return to work because their stimulus checks coupled with additional unemployment benefits are satisfying their financial needs.”
Due to the scarcity of employees, Hamilton said some of the association’s members have resorted to hiring outside the territory, but “for Economic Development Commission beneficiaries who have a requirement that 80 percent of their staff be local, this will present a particular problem unless the Economic Development Commission or the Legislature recognizes the issue and provides relief.”
To curb the demand for employment in the tourism sector, the association has partnered with the University of the Virgin Islands to create a culinary certification course, which Hamilton said she hopes will quell some of the staffing shortages businesses are facing.
Staffing was not the only tourism-related concern Hamilton had. She told committee members that decades-old issues still wreak havoc on the sector — like the inability to use a credit card to pay taxis and the “unduly complicated and time-consuming” process individuals must go through to start a business in the territory.
“We recently went before the Legislature not too long ago, because there was a bill that mandated electronic payments [for taxis], and the interesting thing about that is that you had eight different public, private testifiers … all supporting the legislation to allow the electronic payments … and for whatever reason, that legislation never made it out of the committee,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes we are a little bit frustrated in our lack of ability to move some of those things forward.”
Additionally, the pandemic has thwarted new business and caused rising costs for construction materials like lumber, which went up 90 percent in the territory over the last three months, according to Hamilton.
“That is going to be a challenge for those that are jumping back into the market now. To renovate and rebuild is going to be a high cost due to the availability of goods,” Hamilton said.
Even anticipated new businesses like Alpha Submarine Adventures, which would have added submarine experiences in the territory, were impacted heavily by the pandemic and could not finalize their financing, Hamilton said. She added that Little Switzerland and Diamonds International have closed several locations since the COVID-19 onslaught.
“As a leading industry in the USVI, second only to government, the losses caused by COVID-19 are widespread and the effects will be felt for years,” Hamilton said.
Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Alma Francis Heyliger, Dwayne DeGraff, Donna Frett-Gregory, Novelle Francis Jr., Javan James Sr. and Milton Potter were present for the hearing. No vote was taken since the purpose of the hearing was to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry.