New Passport Regulations Boosting Occupancy Rates for St. John Season

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The positive impact the Department of Homeland Security’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will have on the U.S. Virgin Islands is already evident in next year’s occupancy rates at resorts on St. John.

Beginning on January 8, 2007, a passport will be required for all persons traveling between the United States and the Caribbean, whereas only a driver’s license or other photo identification is currently required for U.S. citizens entering the United States from the Caribbean.

U.S. citizens traveling to the USVI, however, will not need a passport, and St. John’s resorts are already seeing the positive impact the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will have on tourism in the USVI. 
“With the passport laws changing next year, we’re going to be taking advantage of that,” said Westin Resort and Villas General Manager Graeme Davis. “Less than 30 percent of Americans have passports, so this is a tremendous opportunity.”

Last-Minute Vacation Option
For American citizens who decide on a last-minute vacation to escape the winter weather blues, the USVI are an attractive choice, according to Caneel Bay Managing Director Rik Blyth.

“The passport regulations could affect a short-term pickup,” he said. “For somebody who thinks, ‘I’d like to get away for a few days,’ there won’t be a question of whether they need a passport to come to the Virgin Islands.”

Gallows Point Resort General Manager Thomas Moore, who attributes part of his resort’s rise in occupancy rates to the new passport laws, said he is concerned that there is still confusion surrounding the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

“I would attribute some of the rise in occupancy rates to the new passport laws,” he said. “I think it’s playing a part, but as a matter of fact, I’m a little concerned that there is some confusion regarding the law. At the end of the day, I think the new regulations are helping us.”

The Virgin Islands Department of Tourism is not doing enough to promote the new passport regulations, according to Blyth.

 “The Virgin Islands Hotel and Tourism Association is promoting it as a private entity, but the Department of Tourism is not doing as much as they could, in my opinion,” said Blyth. “We need to differentiate ourselves — no passport required.”

Davis is happy with the Department of Tourism’s promotion of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, he said.
“I think it’s a great partnership we have with the Department of Tourism,” said the Westin general manager. “They’re out there advertising and doing a fine job overall. We can always all work together harder to get the word out, but I think they are doing a fine job.”

Lack of Inventory Drives Rates
Also helping to drive up occupancy rates at the Westin is a lack of inventory due to the resort’s conversion of 108 units into timeshares.

“Four buildings are going through renovations to timeshare units, so it’s actually compressing what we have available and driving the rates,” said Davis. “We are expecting another very strong season for next year. Our rates are probably improving about 10 percent next season.”

The Westin will see occupancy rates at 90 percent-plus during the first quarter of 2007, according to Davis.
Caneel Bay will also enjoy high occupancy rates thanks to the return of long-time guests, according to Blyth.

“Of course we’re sold out for Christmas, with our long-time guests who come back here year after year,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to exceed last year by a couple of occupancy points. We plan on being in the mid to low 90 percent range for the first few months of the year, and the 90 percent range for the second quarter.”

Gallows Point will see higher occupancy rates thanks to unchanged room rates, according to Moore.

“We raised our rates last year and got a little resistance, so we’re keeping our rates the same this year, which makes it easier for guests to decide to rebook,” he said. “Overall, for 2006 it’s going to be very similar to 2005, but what we’re seeing is an upswing going into 2007. In January 2006, we were at 75 percent, and we’re definitely going to do better than that next year.”

The resort’s new gourmet coffee shop, Every Ting, and its new webcam are helping to generate tourists’ interest in Gallows Point.

“We have the new gourmet coffee shop, which is wonderful,” said Moore. “We have a brand new webcam on our web site which shows Cruz Bay all the way over to St. Thomas, and you can control the camera. It’s in real time, and you can see the boats swaying, and the ferries coming in and offloading and loading passengers.”

Safe Destination
Despite the robbery of a tourist couple and the brutal beating of another tourist earlier this year, St. John continues to remain a safe destination, according to Davis.

“St. John continues to be a very strong destination for the American customer to come to,” said the Westin general manager. “While we certainly are having our challenges from a safety standpoint, we are still considered a very safe destination.”

For more information on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, visit http://travel.state.gov/trav-el/cbpmc/cbpmc_2223.html.