CHARLOTTE AMALIE, St. Thomas -- Bolstered by a record $17 million budgeted this year for promotion, Charles Turnbull, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, predicted tour-ism numbers will continue to rebound following Sept. 11.

Speaking at the ninth annual Virgin Islands Destination Symposium, attended by key U.S.V.I. tourism partners, including 14 U.S. mainland-based wholesalers and airline representatives, Turnbull cited ongoing tourism projects that include a $75 million expansion at the Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas; an $80 million investment to develop Carifest theme park near the cruise ship pier on St. Thomas; and the construction of a megaresort with a casino and 18-hole golf course on St. Croix.

Although the ill-timed announcement by Carnival Cruise Lines of its immediate pullout from St. Croix dampened the tenor of optimism, results for the winter season already show that the local hotel industry was not hit as badly by fallout from the terrorist attacks as first feared.

Compared with 2001, hotel occupancies for St. Thomas and St. John were down only 4% from December through February as compared with the same period a year ago.

March proved to be close to a bonanza for several hotels on St. Thomas.

Rik Blyth, general manager of the 300-room Wyndham Sugar Bay Beach Resort & Spa, said his property was "sold out" for most of March and "did well" in April.

The 75-room Bolongo Bay Beach Resort, also on St. Thomas, had "sellouts on many nights in March and April," according to Richard Doumeng, general manager.

St. Croix was hit harder, suffering losses most months during the winter season. Robert Siefert, general manager at the 126-room Divi Carina Bay Resort & Casino on St. Croix, said April figures "picked up in mid-month. With some aggressive promotion and pricing, we feel the summer season may prove successful."

Siefert, who also is president of the St. Croix Hotel & Tourism Association, described Carnival's pullout from St. Croix as "an unfortunate loss for the destination. We cannot stand still, and we must move forward with aggressive promotion and marketing."

The cruise line cited lack of demand for St. Croix as well as scattered incidents of crime against its passengers and crews in recent months.

Last year, St. Croix hosted 200,000 cruise ship passengers, compared with approximately 1.7 million who visited St. Thomas in the same period.

The Virgin Islands Port Authority now has 66 ship calls scheduled for Frederiksted, St. Croix, through June 2003, down from what would have been 119.

Ships that will visit include Holland America's Zuiderdam, which debuts in November; Celebrity Cruises' new Constellation; and Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sky.

However, operators that attended the symposium were optimistic that travel incentives, marketing programs and the government's commitment to tourism would bear fruit.

A new advertising campaign with the slogan "Three Islands. Endless Possibilities" will launch this month and run through September.

Pamela Richards, commissioner of tourism, said, "The ads are geared toward a patriotic theme and play up the islands' status as a U.S. territory. The ads celebrate the diversity of the islands and position the U.S. Virgin Islands as the complete vacation experience."

St. Croix's focus is cultural heritage and underwater experiences; St. John centers on ecotourism and natural beauty; and St. Thomas is positioned as the gateway to the Caribbean in terms of nightlife, dining and shopping.

August again has been designated as Travel Agent Month on St. Thomas and St. John. Agents will receive three free nights at a choice of 14 participating properties and discounts on attractions, activities and air. An off-season consumer promotion includes $100 in shopping certificates and a free hotel night when three are booked.

Greg Thorne, with New York-based Inter-Island Tours and a wholesaler for the U.S.V.I., said he has increased his commitment to the destination and now features programs at 21 properties.

His newest U.S.V.I. brochure will be distributed this month to 3,000 agencies. Inter-Island "is committed to retaining our 13% commission on air and land packages," he added.

In Thorne's opinion, his top destinations in 2002 will be "Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands."

Bob Lawrence, with Gogo Worldwide Vacations in Ramsey, N.J., said "the U.S. Virgin Islands is cohesive and is positioned well at this point."

"The coming months present a good opportunity for picking up business," he added, "and the U.S.V.I. has a good shot at capturing the business."

For more information on the U.S. Virgin Islands, call (800) 372-USVI or visit www.usvitourism.vi.

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