Something’s percolating in the Caribbean. After the U.S. Virgin Islands spent the better part of a decade battling a recession and working to revive a GDP hit hard by the closing of its last oil refinery, on St. Croix, all indications are of brighter days ahead.
Tourism, the largest driver of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ economy, has rebounded. In 2014 the industry saw RevPAR numbers nearly equal to prerecession revenue. In December 2014, AMResorts opened Dreams Sugar Bay St. Thomas, its first resort in the United States and its 36th overall, and several new-construction schemes are in the pipeline. The U.S. Virgin Islands’ newly elected governor, Kenneth Mapp, is already reviewing a number of industry-boosting initiatives. A few months after his inauguration, representatives of the American Resort Development Association (ARDA) and the Resort Owners’ Coalition (ARDA-ROC) met with the governor and with Senate president Neville James. “The governor recognizes the value of the hospitality industry to the local economy and has expressed a willingness to work with the timeshare industry as his administration explores new economic growth and development initiatives,” says Keith Stephenson, ARDA’s director of state government affairs.
The Commission of Tourism is updating its five-year tourism plan, developed in conjunction with the Office of the Governor, according to current priorities. The plan was conceived to chart a sustainable future for tourism in the territory through several stages, including research, strategic-visioning sessions and data collection.
Additionally, the governor’s office has cleared the way for a new resort on Water Island, which will make the island more open to tourism. The fourth, smallest and newest addition to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Water Island officially joined the territory in 1996. Beyond day-trippers and a few visitors who stay overnight in the island’s small campground, Water Island has seen little tourism since Hurricane Hugo destroyed the Sea Cliff Resort, in 1989.
“The U.S. Virgin Islands are ripe for growth in the timeshare market,” says Eugenio Macouzet, senior vice president and managing director, Caribbean for RCI business development. “They are well positioned and unique in the Caribbean, as no passport is required for U.S. citizens. The islands have beautiful topography and a large number of direct flights and cruise-ship stops. The recent expansion of major hotel and timeshare developers shows that they provide great opportunity for timeshare.”
Strength in numbers
Developers and resort owners in the U.S. Virgin Islands benefit from some heavyweights who work collaboratively with the industry’s best interests in mind. In many ways the strategic alliance between ARDA-Caribbean, ARDA-ROC and the U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel & Tourism Association and their shared vision for the future—along with support from the USVI government—helped the territory’s industry through the worst of the recession and has been instrumental in setting the stage for the present growth trajectory.
In August 2008 the ARDA-Caribbean Committee was formed, its mission being “to foster and promote the growth and well-being of the timeshare and shared vacation ownership industry in the Caribbean.”
“The ARDA-Caribbean committee is composed of developers and property managers who have an interest in the Caribbean: they either currently operate there, have members who own there or are interested in expanding to the region,” Stephenson says. “Like those of all ARDA state and regional committees, the goals are to ensure that a fair and balanced regulatory environment exists for both owners and developers.”
ARDA, ARDA-ROC and the USVI Hotel & Tourism Association recently hosted a reception for the hospitality industry that was attended by the governor, the lieutenant governor and members of the USVI legislature, as well as developers and other industry representatives. Stephenson describes the event as “a unique networking opportunity” for elected leaders and members representing their respective companies.
“With the tourism industry comprising the largest segment of the USVI’s economy, it’s important that public- and private-sector leaders collaborate in order to develop the relationships, awareness and economic policies necessary for the destination to remain competitive and thrive in the global marketplace,” Stephenson says. “ARDA and ARDA-ROC have established deep roots in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with many legislative successes on behalf of developers and owners.”
Living the island life
With its crystalline blue waters, year-round temperate weather and abundance of recreational activities, it’s not hard to see why the U.S. Virgin Islands earned the moniker American Paradise. Visitors to the territory can spend their days seeking out beaches and coves; snorkeling, diving, kayaking and deep-sea fishing; exploring the ruins of 18th-century sugar plantations; and taking advantage of the plentiful duty-free shopping. Day trips between St. Thomas and St. John, as well as to the British Virgin Islands, are popular.
“It’s an interesting vacation; it’s a taste of the Caribbean,” says Paul Goodrich, regional vice president of operations at SPM Resorts, which manages Bluebeard’s Castle’s four properties on St. Thomas. The properties overlook downtown Charlotte Amalie and Cay Bay or the yacht harbor, where cruise ships dock. On-site dining options include Room with a View and Banana Tree as well as a pool bar and a cabana bar, which feature more-casual fare. Bluebeard’s Castle is named for a hilltop watchtower that dates from the 1600s and today offers visitors outstanding vistas of the island in all directions. “It’s one of the best views you can get,” Goodrich says.
New to St. Thomas is Dreams Sugar Bay St. Thomas from AMResorts. The property, which has nearly 300 rooms and suites and authentic island decor, also boasts a secluded beach, three interconnecting pools, a full-service spa and fitness center and more than 16,000 square feet of meeting facilities. “St. Thomas was selected from a strategic point of view, to continue our growth in the English-speaking Caribbean, but also because of its beauty and the wide variety of activities this destination offers,” says Marc André, regional director of sales for AMResorts Caribbean.
Guests are treated to AMResorts’ signature Unlimited-Luxury® program, which includes five on-site dining options, unlimited top-shelf spirits at four bars and lounges, many daytime activities and live nightly entertainment, an Explorer’s Club for kids, room service and concierge service. “In addition to all the activities and dining options available at the resort, the U.S. Virgin Islands are rich in history and feature many attractions in close proximity that are worth a day trip,” André says. “Visitors are fascinated by the architecture and remarkable sights of this truly culturally rich area.”
One such day trip: the intimate St. John, which Baron Weeks, chairman of the Sunset Ridge Villas Homeowners Association, describes as the jewel in the crown of American resort destinations. Similarly, much of the charm of Sunset Ridge Villas is its size, Weeks says. “With only six townhouse units, Sunset Ridge Villas provides a quiet and intimate vacation experience.” Located on a hillside above the quaint village of Cruz Bay, the property has as its focal point a large common-area deck featuring a pool, panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea and, of course, those namesake sunsets.
“Because St. John is such a magical place, only a small percentage of the owners bank their weeks, and those weeks are quickly booked,” Weeks says. He describes most guests as couples looking for romantic getaways or small families looking to explore St. John; several owners have been with the property since its inception, in 1995. Additionally, he says, “first-time guests are always eager to return, so many are repeat guests or they decide to purchase a week to ensure a place to stay for their annual visit to paradise.”