Business View Caribbean interviews BEVERLY NICHOLSON-DOTY, commissioner of the United States Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, as part of Best practices in USVI Business.
BUSINESS VIEW: The layman might have an impression of the Virgin Islands that it’s so gorgeous and you can see it online and think, “Wow, it just sells itself.” Explain why that’s maybe not the case and what sort of work do you have to do.
BEVERLY NICHOLSON-DOTY: We certainly have a number of god-given attributes in the destination, so we’re very pleased about the fact that we’re a beautiful destination. We have very different experiences between each of the islands. I wish it were that easy that we could just have the open sign and everyone would show up. We get about 1.8 million cruise visitors per year and another 700,000 to 800,000 stay-over visitors. While we do have a certain number that are repeat visitors that come back year after year, competition for the tourism dollar has certainly grown over the last decade. And so we do have to really look at how we channel and look at our distribution points to bring visitors to the territory. There’s a combination of things that we do. Advertising, public relations, definitely. Social media, digital platforms that we’re now using. But it does take quite a bit of strategy to ensure that your destination is top of mind when you’re looking at all of the competition that’s now available.
BV: You’re not the only game in town. If people want to take vacations or go to exotic locations, you’re not the only place they have to decide on. How do you make sure that a given number that ensures your survival are going to come where you are? What specifically do you do to try to lure them?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: There are certain things that people come to the Virgin Islands for that are expected and there are lots of places that are in the same competitive set. If you’re looking for spectacular beaches, of course I think mine are the best, but the truth is that there are a number of beautiful beach destinations. We certainly have incredible vistas and I’m positive that other people will make the same claim. I think the differentiation factor within any destination is the experience, the culture, the people that is unique. I think what we have in the Virgin Islands is we have had seven flags that have flown over the United States Virgin Islands, which means that we have quite a diversity of ethnicities of cultural background. Influences that have included the customs, the heritage and the experience that one would get here. I think that’s what makes one want to come back to a destination again and again. It’s the flavor of the place and people that add to the god-given attributes of the destination.
BV: Who are the typical people coming there? Can you narrow it down, or is the variety of people visiting as different as the variety of people you find once you’re there?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: First of all, 93 percent of our visitors are from the United States. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that we are a U.S. territory in the Caribbean and you don’t need a passport to come to the United States Virgin Islands. The only other place in the Caribbean that can claim that is Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is a different product than the United States Virgin Islands. America has two destinations that have quite different flavors in the Caribbean. So I think that that’s No. 1 and that’s our No. 1. In terms of international markets, the No. 2 market for us is Denmark, and before 1917 we were a Danish colony. In fact, we’re getting ready for our 100th anniversary celebration of being transferred from the kingdom of Denmark to the United States in 2017. So I think those are our two largest markets. And then you have sprinklings. We get a fair amount from Italy and then from across the Caribbean, but generally most of our visitors come from the United States.
BV: Is there are particular part of the U.S. they come from – perhaps the frigid northeast in the winter, or is it all across the country?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: It depends on the time of the year. The northeast certainly is a strong market for us. But also in our top 10 are California, Texas and Florida. So some that you would expect certainly – New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and the Mid-Atlantic states are all significant markets for us. But then when you look at some you may not traditionally think of like Texas and California and Florida, those are warm-weather states that are all in our top 10 places within the U.S. that deliver visitors for us. In fact, I think Texas provided over 30,000 to the territory last year alone.
BV: Is California a little surprising? That’s a pretty significant trip.
NICHOLSON-DOTY: That’s correct. But I think that a lot of people on the west coast have tried Hawaii and they’re looking for something different. We find that Americans, especially when they’re taking their first vacation, what we’ve found is that California is a really good market for us. I think that what happens is that they certainly have done Hawaii, they’ve done their own state and they’re looking for another U.S. place that they could visit, so that certainly plays into it. Also, I think it’s a good fit. I think we find that people from California, they generally are looking for that beach experience. They’re a little slower-paced than our northeastern clientele and the island time certainly works in our favor.
BV: How much of an advantage is the passport factor?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: It’s huge. It is huge. When you think about the fact they say that less than 30 percent of Americans currently have passports, and you think about a family of four, if you want expedited service you’re talking about an excess of $100 dollars per person to get as passport. So it could easily add to $400 or $500 to your vacation for a family of four. So I think that certainly has an impact on the territory. Equally as important is that we have extremely good lift from the U.S. from major gateways – New York, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Charlotte and several flights a day out of Florida into the territory – so I think that also access is a significant component as well. And for most places it’s less than four hours, anyplace in the northeast, and from Florida it’s less than three hours. So I think that those are all significant reasons why we’re popular too.
BV: What kind of experience are they getting? Is it a casual vibe? You mention Californians are attracted because it’s laid-back. Is that what people are looking at when they come out there?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: I think you’re going to find a more relaxed atmosphere. I think that there are some very strong cultural differences that one would maybe find surprising. If you’re from New York, the fact that everyone says good morning or good afternoon, in general, whether they know you or not, may be unusual. It definitely depends. I would ask one, and we often ask someone, what is it that you are interested in? Because we really find that we have something that can match just about any experience that one is looking for. If someone is really into culture, history, heritage or tourism, I would strongly encourage them to visit St. Croix.
We have more standing sugar mills on St. Croix than anyplace in the Caribbean. We call them our pyramids of the Caribbean, because they sprinkle over the architecture of the entire island and they are reminiscent of our plantation past. They tell a story of a time of St. Croix being the breadbasket from an agricultural standpoint of the region, and also a major sugar producer. And to this day we have two major rum distilleries on St. Croix – Cruzan rum, which has been in existence for more than 200 years; and Diageo/Captain Morgan started distilling rum in the Virgin Islands three years ago. So I would encourage someone to go to St. Croix if they’re really more of a history buff. They’ll want a very authentic experience, to visit the eco farm, to go kayaking in the luminescent area of St. Croix on the north shore.
It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re a diver you definitely want to go to St. Croix because it’s the only place that you can dive a shore, a wall, a pier, a wreck and a night dive all in the same day. If someone is looking for more activity, I would certainly suggest St. Thomas. It has a total different vibe, definitely more cosmopolitan. We welcome almost 2 million visitors here annually to St. Thomas, so you’re certainly going to get a different vibe. You have a lot of your brand hotels on St. Thomas. Very eclectic dining experiences. It can go from local cuisine to nouvelle to fusion, so I think that definitely, if you’re looking for more of an active vacation, St. Thomas may be a better choice.
If you’re very much into nature, I would suggest St. John or Water Island. On St. John, Lawrence Rockefeller donated two thirds of the island to the National Parks Service, so two-thirds of the island will forever remain undeveloped. So it all depends on what you’re looking for. I think that we have a niche for everything from a bed and breakfast all the way to the Ritz Carlton or the Buccaneer. I think that one of the unique things about having a four-island destination is that we have many different offerings.
BV: When people come, do they hop from one to the other, or just stay on the one they’ve researched as a fit?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: I think that just because St. Croix is 40 miles south of St. Thomas, if people go to St. Croix they generally stay there. They tend to have a longer vacation in the number of days that they vacation. Almost all of the visitors that come to St. Thomas will go to St. John for a day trip, and since St. John has no airport you have to come through St. Thomas to go to St. John. I think that generally the people that come to St. Thomas or St. John will see both islands. We are encouraging more people to do the island hop. We think it’s very important. But we also have to be truthful. We are very close to the British Virgin Islands, and if someone has a passport they generally will take a day trip to the British Virgin Islands as well, if they’re on St. Thomas or St. John.
BV: What’s your favorite island?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: All of them. My parents are from St. Croix. I’ve grown up on St. Thomas. I think St. John is absolutely from childhood a place to get away to. It was always a treat for us as children to get to go to St. John. To have the experience of being able to have grown up experiencing all three, I have different things that I like to do on each island. I definitely would say that I love sailing over to St. John. I think it’s probably one of the most relaxing ways that one can spend a day, sailing. When I want to have an authentic experience and experience our island culture, I certainly would spend a day in St. Croix and I would encourage people to come in February and experience our Agriculture Fair. It’s unlike any other. My husband is from Missouri, so I had a little idea of what a state fair is, and I will tell you that even though there are some similarities, there are certainly some very unique aspects of our fair that would give one a total authentic experience of having known that they were in a Caribbean destination.
BV: What are the must-sees if you’re encouraging someone from the States to come down?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: The St. Thomas carnival is in April. The St. John’s carnival is the 4th of July. In St. Croix, the Cruzan Christmas Festival is always over the holidays. It ends on Three Kings Day. St. Croix shares a very large Hispanic population and about 30 percent of the population is of Hispanic descent, so it ends on Three Kings. We share some cultural icons from the Spanish heritage, including the celebration of Three Kings. If you’re interested in carnivals or festivals, those are certainly some highlights along with the agricultural fair.
There are also some other great times to visit. In St. Croix, during April they do a food and wine festival. They’re in their 15th year now, and it’s an incredible experience. We have lots of chefs that are visiting chefs, they do Iron Man with local chefs cooking on the beach. They do a big taste of St. Croix right toward the end of the week. If you are into triathlons, St. Croix has an Ironman qualifier that occurs every May. And St. John does a marathon called “8 Tuff Miles” in February.
So it depends on what you are interested in. We try to keep a very updated calendar on our website, because there are the iconic events that happen each year. But there also are events that are added all the time.
I think that there are experiences that one should not miss. I believe that if you come to the island of St. Croix, you should definitely get to Buck Island. If you get to St. John, you definitely want to go to Trunk Bay. If you are in St. Thomas, I’m going to encourage you to at least get to Magens Bay. We have the second oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, one of the few with the sand floors, in our historic district of downtown Charlotte Amalie. Incidentally, we’re having a major facelift being done to our downtown area that will really revitalize the main historic district. Within the town area of Charlotte Amalie, I believe that you have five churches, all of which are more than 100 years old, some much older than that. Cruz Bay is an eclectic little town. You could bump into Kenny Chesney while you are in Cruz Bay. Unique stores. I certainly would encourage you, if you come to the island of St. Croix, to pick up a Cruzan bracelet. You definitely want to have one. Any place in the world that I see that Cruzan bracelet, I know they’ve been to St. Croix.
BV: Do you have a particularly busy season every year?
NICHOLSON-DOTY: Traditionally, Christmas signals the beginning of the busy season and Easter generally ends the busy season. But one of the things that we’re finding is that more people are coming to the territory in the shoulder seasons. So outside of September and October, which are traditionally months where we’re certainly praying we don’t get hurricanes, we’ve found that the busy season is stretching further and further out.