Cre­at­ing a Bet­ter USVI, Post-Storm

The Star (St. Lucia) - - REGIONAL - Clau­dia Elei­box

Last month a LIAT air­craft ush­ered me be­neath fluffy clouds to the mere 83 square kilo­me­ters of St. Thomas. By then the USVI’s re­cent his­tory was sliced into two seg­ments: pre- and post-storm. In Septem­ber 2017 hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria, “two fair ladies” as one lo­cal de­scribed them, had dis­coloured the ter­ri­tory, leav­ing five peo­ple dead. USVI res­i­dents con­sider their home to be back to nor­mal but the truth is the sit­u­a­tion is still a long way from that.

Just over a year after Irma and Maria, scars re­main in the form of large build­ings stand­ing face­less, and is­lan­ders put the blame for ev­ery short­com­ing on the two cat­e­gory-five storms. The ter­ri­tory’s re­main­ing schools were re­opened only thirty days post-storm, with stu­dents from the six hur­ri­cane-de­mol­ished in­sti­tu­tions shar­ing re­sources up to a year later. The two main health­care op­tions on St. Thomas are also yet to be re­built. My fel­low LIAT-hosted re­porters and I walked into an air­port clearly not yet re­stored to its reg­u­lar state.

In St. John some trees still ap­pear scorched and the man­grove on the na­ture re­serve fea­tured only barely vis­i­ble new shoots. And as much as peo­ple of the USVI would like busi­ness to be re­stored to pre-storm sta­tus, some of the is­land’s best per­form­ing com­pa­nies have re­sorted to open­ing for only a few hours a week, or have re­lo­cated.

Nev­er­the­less, as Caribbean peo­ple love to say, the USVI has re­mained “re­silient through it all”. With as­sis­tance from the gov­ern­ment, LIAT has, since July 2018, been mak­ing reg­u­lar flights to St. Thomas, an achieve­ment that in­spired Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Os­bert Pot­ter to say: “We feel good that we were able to sus­tain and bounce back after two cat­e­gory-five hur­ri­canes.”

The ter­ri­tory re­lies heav­ily on tourism so, just three months post-storm, the USVI was open to cruise ship tourists. Still, ar­rivals are down by some 30%. With im­prove­ments con­tin­u­ing apace, Com­mis­sioner for Tourism, Bev­erly Ni­chol­son-Doty ex­pects the 2018-2019 ros­ter to bring about 1.7 mil­lion vis­i­tors, near­ing the ter­ri­tory’s pre-storm num­bers.

Tax col­lec­tions from overnight vis­i­tors are down by about 55%, ac­cord­ing to Ni­chol­son-Doty. Cur­rently only 50% of tra­di­tional tourist ac­com­mo­da­tions are open for busi­ness but the largest re­sorts, which have the most room ca­pac­ity, in­clud­ing Mar­riott’s French­man’s Reef, Sugar Bay Re­sort & Spa and The Westin on St. John, have re­mained closed for the past year. How­ever, Ni­chol­son-Doty an­tic­i­pates the ma­jor re­sorts will re­open by 2020. Mean­while, non-ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tions, ac­cord­ing to an Airbnb re­port last month, have in­creased by 600%.

Both Pot­ter and Ni­chol­son-Doty are fo­cused on the sil­ver lin­ings of their strug­gle. Said the lat­ter: “We know that the light at the end of the tun­nel is that we are go­ing to have a much-im­proved over­all ter­ri­tory for the peo­ple of our is­lands and also for the peo­ple that visit us. We’re also re­ally proud that the ho­tels are not just re­build­ing to their ear­lier stan­dard; they’re re­ally im­prov­ing the over­all prod­uct.” Re­train­ing in­dus­try work­ers, eval­u­at­ing the ter­ri­tory’s over­all ser­vice, and pro­mot­ing the new “Made in the USVI” cam­paign are all ini­tia­tives ex­pected to boost the tourism prod­uct.

Ac­cord­ing to Pot­ter, new schools, hospi­tals, roads and “the over­all hard­en­ing of in­fra­struc­ture” have been eval­u­ated and price-tagged at about US $8.5bil­lion. The funds have al­ready been sourced from the U.S. fed­eral gov­ern­ment. “We know what we want to do,” Pot­ter says, “we know how it’s go­ing to be fi­nanced but de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing for a lot of the struc­tures that have to be re­built will take some time.”

None­the­less, the ter­ri­tory has so far been able to sus­tain it­self and has re­cov­ered well enough to be invit­ing more and more vis­i­tors to its shores, even as work (ex­pected to last for two more years) pro­gresses. Al­though im­peded by the re­mark­able duo last year, the is­lands have a lot to of­fer to sight­seers and plenty of his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion that couldn’t be rained out by hur­ri­canes.

Said Ni­chol­son-Doty: “LIAT re­turn­ing to the Vir­gin Is­lands is so im­por­tant in terms of vis­i­tors com­ing to the ter­ri­tory. We’re talk­ing about Caribbean peo­ple vis­it­ing one an­other.” She noted that about 30,000-40,000 re­gional cit­i­zens an­nu­ally visit the USVI and that LIAT is “hap­pily re­con­nect­ing fam­i­lies”.

Hun­dreds of me­tres of man­grove area in the Vir­gin Is­lands Na­tional Park still look like this, a year after Hur­ri­canes Irma and Maria stripped veg­e­ta­tion dry.

Com­mis­sioner for Tourism Bev­erly Ni­chol­son-Doty (pic­tured) dis­plays the un­ex­plain­able con­fi­dence the USVI has in a bright and suc­cess­ful re­cov­ery pe­riod.

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