Creating a Better USVI, Post-Storm
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.