Tourism Association President Upbeat as Resort Investments Kick In

A bustling Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove is on the left, while Frenchman’s Reef, on the right, is unopened and awaiting major repairs that have been delayed by the coronavirus. (Source photo by Bethaney Lee)
A bustling Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove is on the left, while Frenchman’s Reef, on the right, is unopened and awaiting major repairs that have been delayed by the coronavirus. (Source file photo by Bethaney Lee)

Since the hurricanes of 2017, the number of hotel rooms in the U.S. Virgin Islands has fallen from 4,500 to 2,450, according to the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association, and travel to the territory has fallen by more than 60 percent. Lisa Hamilton, president of the association, says it is time to be optimistic.

Lemonade is being made from lemons, she said.

Hamilton was echoed by Mandy Cartwright, head of marketing at St. Croix’s Carambola Beach Resort. Cartwright told the Source on Friday that Carambola’s occupancy rate this season was better than expected, ranging between 70 and 80 percent.

“The USVI is in demand because it is open. Many of the other Caribbean destinations have issues,” she said.

Cartwright said the Carambola resort still has work to do on its 150 rooms to bring them up to Marriott standards, but she hopes that work will start this year and be completed by 2022. Work has already started on its main restaurant, which is expected to be open next month. Three of its four conference rooms are also now available for events.

The Government Employees’ Retirement Systems sold Carambola to Davis Bay LLC, a subsidiary of Rubicon Holdings, last July. The facility is managed by Aimbridge Hospitality.

There are reportedly proposals to redevelop Hotel on the Cay on Protestant Cay in Christiansted Harbor. The best spot for development on St. Croix, it is currently underutilized, as this empty fountain illustrates.

Sarah Sterose, assistant manager of Hotel on the Cay, the 54-room resort on the five-acre cay in Christiansted harbor, said that the resort’s occupancy rate has been hovering at about 75 percent. She said she has hopes for the upcoming year.

View of Carambola Resort with Hamms Bluff in the background. (Susan Ellis photo)
View of Carambola Resort with Hamms Bluff in the background. (Source file photo by Susan Ellis)

She declined to address a comment Hamilton made that “proposals for the redevelopment of Protestant Cay are being evaluated.” The Cay is owned by the Virgin Islands government, and Sen. Kurt Vialet has questioned whether it is getting the best use.

Hamilton told the Source one of the reasons she is optimistic about the territory’s future is that some resorts that had reached a “mature status” were now being almost completely rebuilt.

“We are encouraged that Caneel Bay Resort is moving toward a solution that will allow it to reopen, being both the largest employer and economic driver on St. John,” Hamilton said.

Caneel Bay Resort has operated under an agreement with the National Park Service, known as a retained use estate, or RUE. Laurance Rockefeller, who donated much of the land to create the Virgin Islands National Park, deeded the 170-acre property to the National Park Service in 1983. The RUE allowed the resort operator to manage the property but pay no rent, with the understanding that when the agreement expires in 2023, the entire property reverts to the federal government.

The National Park Service on Thursday initiated the next phase of environmental site assessments there. The assessment is a step in determining the future of the resort.

Hamilton also pointed to another Marriott property as being important to tourism’s recovery.

“The territory needs the marketing power and economic contribution of the Marriott at Frenchman’s Reef,” she said.

Frenchman’s Reef on St. Thomas plans a $200 million resort rebuild and reopening in the summer of 2022.

The beach at Hotel on the Cay was empty Sunday morning. (Source photo by Linda Morland)
The beach at Hotel on the Cay (Source file photo by Linda Morland)

“The entire tourism industry, not just the hotels themselves, depends on rooms filled with guests,” Hamilton said.

She also was encouraged to hear that Divi Carina Bay Beach Resort & Casino, on St. Croix, was reopening. Divi’s website says it will have a soft reopening in April. From April to September, Divi will offer a room-only experience for adults and children.

However, when renovations are completed in October, Divi plans to open an all-inclusive, adult-only experience. It says on its webpage the resort will have “a fresh Caribbean chic vibe. Guests will experience luxurious comfort in our redesigned rooms and suites and our amenities offer plenty of active choices. … Guests will love the resort’s new food and beverage offerings, including authentic Italian, American classics, brick-oven pizza, pan-Asian fusion, gourmet coffee and pastries and fresh selections cooked on a sizzling hot lava rock. Plus, the drinks keep flowing at our lively bars.”

Hamilton quoted Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in her news release. In his State of the Territory Address, the governor said the Virgin Islands “is poised to rebound from this pandemic stronger than any of our neighbors in this region.”

The Hotel Association has about 300 members throughout the territory, broken down into two districts. Hamilton said the association used to send out a monthly newsletter, then it moved to a weekly newsletter after the storms and finally started issuing daily updates as COVID restrictions set in. The association was established 40 years ago.