Last updated: 05:00 PM ET, Fri July 29 2016

BVI's Emerging Tourism Profile: One on One With Sharon Flax-Brutus

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | July 29, 2016

BVI's Emerging Tourism Profile: One on One With Sharon Flax-Brutus

Considering its largest hotel property accommodates around 200 guests, it’s not hard to understand how the British Virgin Islands (BVI) at times basks in the shadow of some other Caribbean travel destinations.

Yet in recent years, the BVI has emerged as a must-visit exotic Caribbean destination highlighted by outstanding diving opportunities, adventure-themed activities and distinctive cuisine focused on seafood.

The BVI actually draws more annual visitors that other higher-profile Caribbean destinations including Antigua, Bermuda, St. Lucia and the Turks & Caicos according to Caribbean Tourism Organization data. Travelers journey to the destination for events like BVI Food Fete, an series of culinary festivals and activities held each November.

The territory is also a leading cruise port of call and recently completed a cruise pier expansion that includes construction of Tortola Pier Park, a five-acre land-based development that will feature commercial, entertainment and green spaces, plus restaurant and shopping facilities.

Despite its tourism success, as a British overseas territory that attracts a large percentage of its visitors from the U.K., the recent Brexit vote will likely impact the BVI’s tourism future.

TravelPulse spoke recently with Sharon Flax-Brutus, director of the BVI Tourist Board, to discuss the destination’s 2016 tourism season’s highlights, opportunities and challenges.

TravelPulse: How will the Brexit vote in the U.K. impact BVI tourism in the short- and long-term?

Sharon Flax-Brutus: As no country has ever left the EU and the U.K. has not evoked Article 50, I can only share assumptions and opinions. Once Article 50 has been evoked, the talks on what will happen moving forward will begin. While there are two years to decide the exit criteria, it still has to all be agreed upon and signed off by each of the 28 member states, which can take many years.

Based on the current situation, the dollar rising against the pound, and Article 50, we expect tourism will be affected and we anticipate a decline in bookings from the U.K., especially by the price-conscious traveler. 

Our U.K. team is working closely with the major tour operators to get them to load Norwegian flights between the U.K. and San Juan so we can capitalize on the benefits of the lower fares and more accessibility to the BVI.

Our properties will need to be more aggressive and more creative in working the U.K. market. The competition will be greater as travelers will be comparing prices even more. The objective here will be to highlight the attractive packages and benefits for taking a BVI vacation versus another destination.

From our side, we are looking at all opportunities to keep the BVI’s name out in the market. We will continue to pay attention to the additional European markets where we have representation – such as France, Italy, and Germany – which offer significant potential for the BVI.

TP: How has the destination fared so far this year in terms of overnight land-based and cruise-ship visitor arrivals?

SFB: Overnight arrivals to the BVI from January through April are up 3.77 percent over 2015. Cruise arrivals from January to April 2016, are up 46 percent.

TP: What are your expectations in each of these areas for the rest of 2016 and how do you think 2017 will shape up?

SFB: We are hopeful that overnight arrivals to the territory in 2016 will continue to grow even with the closure of Rosewood Little Dix Bay (RLDB) for renovation. RLDB is the largest property in the BVI with 100 rooms. However, to minimize the impact of the property’s closure, we have implemented a marketing strategy that highlights the broader range of accommodations available in the BVI.

We’ve received positive feedback from industry partners and many of them are reporting growth so far this year. In addition, there are quite a few property upgrades taking place so we expect that will attract more travelers to these properties, resulting in continued growth in 2017. RLDB is scheduled to open at the end of 2017, which will add a lot of excitement for the destination, as this historic property takes its experience for guests to a new level.

TP: Arrivals to the BVI grew modestly last year compared with 2014. Is the small rate of growth a concern and if so how will you address it in the years to come?

SFB: We recognize the fact that the only way we will see significant growth in arrivals is to increase the number of rooms available as well as accessibility to the BVI. That’s why the government is focusing on these two areas. We have the upcoming introduction of the new BVI Airways service starting in November and the government is also working to attract investment in the industry.

TP: How have the recent improvements at the cruise ship pier in Tortola impacted the country’s cruise ship visitor arrivals?

SFB: We have seen a significant increase in cruise arrivals to the territory since opening the new extended port and Tortola Pier Park in 2015. Cruise arrivals in 2015 were up 43.1 percent.  This year, from January to April 2016, cruise arrivals are up 46 percent.

TP: Is the work at the pier complete?

SFB: The work at the Pier Park is substantially complete. The areas that are not yet finished do not interfere with the experience for cruise passengers, but the remaining updates will further enhance the Pier Park.

TP: Please describe the Secrets Revealed Travel Agent Specialist program. How will it help U.S. travel agents to sell more BVI vacations?

SFB: We’re so excited to launch the BVI Secrets Revealed Travel Agent Specialist Program and work more closely with the travel advisor community. The program, available via a mobile app (tablet specifically) and website, will provide travel advisors with the necessary tools and resources to help their clients discover the unique aspects of the destination.

We created three main areas of content: Destination Discovery, Product Showcase & Supplier Directory, and the Sales Toolbox. The new program is interactive and will let travel advisors easily access all the materials they need – including videos, brochures, property offerings, maps, and more – to offer their clients personalized experiences in the BVI.

TP: What aspect of the BVI should vacationers know that in your view is relatively under-publicized?

SFB: The BVI offers old-world Caribbean charm that’s hard to find anywhere else. With very few chain restaurants or big chain hotels, every experience in the BVI is special and authentic. The people here are warm and friendly. From the moment visitors arrive in the BVI, they’ll immediately feel welcomed. 

TP: What qualities do you believe travelers most visit the B.V.I. to experience?

SFB: One of the biggest draws of the BVI is the unique ability for travelers to island hop. With 60 islands and cays all in close proximity, many visitors opt to charter a yacht and hop from island to island. The island hopping tool on our new website makes it even easier for guests to plan their route and experience the most of our many unique islands.

With a number of private islands and countless off the beaten path spots to discover, visitors who come to the BVI often feel like they have the whole place to themselves and can easily find their own special piece of paradise here.   

The BVI also offers an incredible culinary experience. Fresh seafood, such as conch and the Anegada spiny lobster, are not-to-be-missed dishes in the BVI.

The BVI’s privacy, safety, sense of exclusivity, and personalized experience are some of the many reasons the destination has an impressive repeat visitor rate of more than 60 percent. We continue to receive high praise and accolades from travelers who visit the BVI.

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