Forget bottles of Cruzan rum. U.S. visitors flocking to the U.S. Virgin Islands these days are bringing home a different kind of souvenir: A shot or two of the Covid vaccine.
While the territory is not actively promoting or marketing vaccine tourism, "nonresident vaccinations appear to be a benefit of the vacation experience for some visitors," according to Joseph Boschulte, the USVI's commissioner of tourism. "We're not stopping them or preventing them from getting the vaccine.
"Information had circulated that visitors could get vaccinated here. Appointments are available at our two centers on St. Thomas or St. Croix through the Department of Health's website after a visitor arrives or online before travelers head south," Boschulte said.
The tourism commissioner emphasized that the destination had a good supply of the vaccines. "The rule is that you have to use up your allotment before you can be resupplied with more doses."
Boschulte estimated that approximately 3%, or 1,000 of the vaccines in the USVI, have gone into the arms of tourists to date.
All USVI residents age 16 and older have been eligible for the jabs since March 1. As of April 12, the territory had administered at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine to 31,305 individuals. Of that number, 20,004 residents were fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health.
Caribbean islands have put protocols in place for travelers. Our map and report provides details on each country's entry requirements for U.S. visitors.
The USVI currently is on track to meet or exceed Gov. Albert Bryan's goal of vaccinating 50% of the population of 106,000 residents by July 1.
Depending upon which vaccine is administered, there's a wait time of three or four weeks between the first shot and the second. Visitors who receive the first jab either return home to the U.S. mainland and then fly back for the second round "or they stay here for three or four weeks," the commissioner said.
Boschulte sees this as a boon to the territory.
"This checks a lot of boxes for us. Our economy and our workers benefit from those who stay several weeks, eat in our restaurants, stay at hotels, charter boats for daytrips and shop while waiting for the second shot," he said.
"The airlines get the passengers who return a second time, and our visitor numbers increase. Our airlift right now is ahead of both the pre-pandemic lift and the pre-2017 hurricane flight operations."
Indeed, airlift to the USVI has increased dramatically since restrictions on leisure travel were relaxed following the second shutdown last August.
St. Thomas' winter/spring 2020-2021 lift totals approximately 30,000 seats weekly, an increase of more than 50% over the same period in 2019-2020.
On St. Croix, the number of weekly seats is 8,500, a 35% jump over the winter/spring period a year ago.
For summer 2021, airlift into the two islands will rival pre-pandemic winter levels, according to the Department of Tourism.
Boschulte attributed the current surge in visitors to the entry regulation that requires travelers to fill out the online Travel Portal to receive certification prior to travel. A negative Covid-19 test result taken within five days of travel also is required.
"Visitors are confident about our health and safety protocols. Right now we're averaging 3,000 arrivals a day into St. Thomas and 800 into St. Croix," he said.
Boschulte is "thankful and grateful" for the uptick in arrivals and feels that the numbers are sustainable.
He described the summer forecast as strong. "The expectation that all kids will be back in the classroom in the fall bodes well for family vacation travel this summer," he said.