One of the biggest challenges for any tourism leader in a hurricane zone is to lead the recovery after a major storm. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, that job fell to Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who has been commissioner of tourism since 2007. Prior to that, she headed the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association for 14 years. She spoke to cruise editor Tom Stieghorst about conditions a year after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Q: What do the cruise tourism areas look like a year after the hurricanes?
A: When we reopened in November, there were several things the cruise lines made it very clear to us that they needed to have available in addition to general road clearing and power restoration. They were also looking for beaches that individuals could go to, activities and attractions and dining facilities.
When we reopened, we had all of those components in place. Since then, we've had significant improvements to the overall infrastructure and also to the activities, attractions and dining facilities that have come back on line.
At this point, we have only two of our major facilities and attractions that are still not open on St. Thomas. Most of the restaurants and all of the beaches are open. In many cases, they are more beautiful than before the storm. In that regard, there's been a lot of progress in the past year.
Q: In what ways do some areas look better now than before the hurricanes hit?
A: In some areas the sand refurbishing was significant. Magens Bay had some significant impact from the storm, especially to the forested area. We had a really great partnership with Royal Caribbean that allowed for replanting and also actually enhancing some of the beach infrastructure like restaurants and dining facilities. In many ways, the beach has been significantly improved.
Q: What about attractions on St. Thomas?
A: Many of the attractions have been reopened and have been making their facilities much better. That's the case with Coral World and Paradise Point. I think that our destination as a whole is being made stronger and more resilient. Our roads are being repaired, power lines are being taken underground, we are doing additional dredging in our harbor to accommodate larger ships. We are working on a long-term plan that enhances the Main Street and downtown areas, both for traffic flow and aesthetics. Overall, the destination is being made much more resilient and will be enhanced as we move along.
Q: Are there any labor shortages?
A: About 6,000 to 7,000 people were evacuated, and that doesn't account for individuals that made their own arrangements. I think what we are finding is that many people are moving back now. There was the initial period when people moved out of the territories, many of them for health and education.
We have about 50% of our overnight accommodations that are closed. So you have employees who have transitioned to other areas of the tourism industry but also other industries, as well. As properties start to open, employment may become a challenge. At this moment, the industry is operating on people who have moved here for our recovery effort short-term, but you also have a shifting of tourism employees from overnight accommodations into other areas of the tourism industry.
Q: What do you say to agents who say they have clients with children who don't want to see a lot of signs of destruction?
A: I want to be as transparent as possible. This is going to take time. We are on an island, and everything that is used for the rebuilding process is imported. There are those areas that are going to take years for total recovery. There are going to be remnants of hurricane damage for the foreseeable future. We were very careful to work with our ground operators to ensure that the traversed areas of tours and where tourists are going to be frequenting were addressed early on. That's not to say that they're not going to see debris. That's not to say they won't see areas where there are still roofs missing. But in terms of a lot of destruction in those areas that visitors would be traversing, I don't think that is a challenge here.