The U.S. Virgin Islands kicks off the high season with new airlift, new attractions, a new smartphone app and the launch of a project to craft a five-year strategic tourism plan.
JetBlue launched a nonstop Boston-St. Thomas flight on Dec. 15. The seasonal service will operate five days a week, operating nonstop on the southbound flight and stopping in San Juan on the northbound leg.
On the same date, the carrier began twice-daily flights from San Juan to St. Thomas and a daily flight from San Juan to St. Croix.
American boosted its 737 service from Miami to St. Thomas to three flights a day earlier this year. The carrier serves St. Croix twice a day from Miami.
According to Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism, the new lift and expanded flights, along with the completion of a $48 million renovation of Marriott's Frenchman's Reef (see report, Page 35), new attractions and activities "and strong showings in our cruise market, show great promise for a solid winter season."
The five-year tourism plan kicks off in January with a series of 15 public meetings on various topics to gather input and feedback from both the private and public sectors.
The results will be presented at the Governor's Conference on Tourism in the spring, after which tourism industry experts will provide their expertise on visitor experience, trends, outlooks and areas needing improvement.
A draft plan will be available for public feedback before the final plan is approved.
The final tourism plan will be updated frequently as the market changes.
"Tourism is the cornerstone of our economy," said Gov. John deJongh Jr. "We must ensure that we make the best decisions in this rapidly changing and expanding market."
One new attraction for visitors to St. Thomas this winter actually is very old.
Hassel Island lies 200 feet from the sea wall in the Charlotte Amalie harbor, occupied over the years by the British during the Napoleonic Wars (a fort still remains) and then by the Danish.
By the mid-20th century, most of Hassel Island was privately owned. The Royal Mail Inn, the only hotel, is believed to be the hotel immortalized in Herman Wouk's novel "Don't Stop the Carnival."
The Virgin Islands National Park purchased the 136-acre island in 1978; since 2004, the park, along with the Hassel Island Preservation Trust and other organizations, has been working to restore its historical sites.
That involved removing 120 derelict vessels from the shoreline, including three that dated from Hurricane Marilyn in 1995, and collecting 1,800 bags of debris.
At a ceremony in late October, Mark Hardgrove, superintendent of the National Park Service, opened four Hassel Island hiking trails and targeted fall 2012 for the official opening of the entire island.
"The cruise ship industry is very pleased with the U.S. Virgin Islands as a tour destination," Hardgrove said. "They are planning to include Hassel Island on tours next fall."
Access to Hassel Island is via ferry from the Crown Bay dock. Although there are no plans for a visitor center, ferry tickets are sold at a kiosk along the waterfront.
Tours are self-guided with signs along the four hiking routes.
Also new in St. Thomas is the Treasure Seeker, docked across from the Windward Passage hotel along the waterfront in Charlotte Amalie.
The bright-red, converted car ferry is slated to operate two-hour, pirate-theme tours around Hassel Island and Water Island.
Opening Dec. 15 in St. Thomas is the Magic Ice Gallery, where visitors can view exhibits showcasing the history of the USVI in installations created from snow and ice.
St. Thomas will debut its first zipline operation this spring with six ziplines and two skywalks and will offer sailing classes at the Captain School.
Paddleboarding has arrived on St. Croix, as has snuba, a combination of snorkeling and scuba where the air comes from long hoses attached to pontoon rafts on the surface.
New amenities at Fort Frederick Beach include a water trampoline and an inflatable rock-climbing wall, while a webcam on the Frederiksted waterfront enables visitors to connect with friends and family for free.
Sea-Thru Kayak Adventures, the only clear-kayak tour operator in the USVI, offers daytime tours in St. Croix's West End waters or a nighttime excursion through Salt River Historic Preserve to see bioluminescent sea creatures.
At Cruz Bay on St. John, the newest attraction is a 125-passenger glass-bottom boat featuring 25 viewing windows below deck, with a bar on the middle deck.
A rundown of festivals, events and attractions in the USVI is available at www.visitusvi.com.
For Caribbean and Mexico news, follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.