Last updated: 09:11 AM ET, Thu March 05 2015

St. Thomas Readies for Winter-Weary Visitors

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | March 05, 2015

St. Thomas Readies for Winter-Weary Visitors

PHOTO: Charlotte Amalie should become a “24-hour city,” said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ tourism commissioner. (Photo by Brian Major).

The raw, seemingly unending winter weather pounding most of North America is reason enough for travelers to opt for a Caribbean getaway this spring. Nevertheless regional destinations today face stiff competition for vacationers as several Caribbean countries have successfully expanded their tourism marketing efforts in recent years.

For the U.S. Virgin Islands, strong air transportation connections, activities ranging from the familiar to the unexpected and passport-free entry continue to create a strong draw for leisure travelers, said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the U.S.V.I.’s tourism commissioner.

New U.S.V.I. air service includes non-stop weekly service aboard Delta Air Lines from Atlanta to St. Croix, which launched on December 20. The service is slated to run through Aug. 15, 2015. The additional lift augments what is already a full menu of flights to St. Thomas and its two sister islands, St. Croix and St. John.

“Just out of New York we have American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines offering daily service,” Nicholson-Doty told TravelPulse Wednesday.

“If you start looking at the wider corridor, you have service from Philadelphia aboard US Airways, you have Boston with JetBlue, United out of Dulles and flights to the territory from Charlotte,” she said. “There are also five daily flights from Miami, in addition to all of JetBlue’s connections from Puerto Rico into the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

The extensive air connections provide travelers with access to a series of diverse travel experiences among the territory’s three main islands. St. Thomas features great beaches, a historic downtown district and world class-shopping while St. Croix offers a relaxed vibe with sweeping natural beauty. In tiny St. John,a paradise of intimate beaches and coves and an emphasis on luxury villas and resort accommodations awaits travelers.

The U.S.V.I.’s varied attractions are easily accessible to Americans, who can fly to this Caribbean destination without a passport.

Although more U.S. residents have passports than at any time previously (about 110 million out of 313 million in 2012, according to a U.S. State Department official), millions remain out of the loop, providing the U.S.V.I. with a clear advantage when courting winter getaway travelers.

“I’m still amazed at how many times I hear people say they don’t have passport,” said Nicholson-Doty. “For people who want to get away and have families, it’s an expensive reality that certainly impacts the idea of a quick getaway. Expedited passport services cost around $500 per person. It takes away funds travelers could use for excursions and shopping.”

U.S.V.I.’s Department of Tourism is offering several initiatives to encourage travelers to escape North America’s wicked weather. “We will be doing some different things to promote travel to the region including a few 72-hour viral sales offering credits of up to $1,500 for JFK-departing flights,” she said. “It’s a way to bring awareness to the destination.”

Facilitating Farm to Table

The U.S.V.I.’s Department of Tourism is also working with local groups to support sustainability, working with a network of restaurants to only serve fish in season as a strategy to avoid over-fishing practices. Other programs train dive operators to launch programs that allow dive enthusiasts visiting the Virgin Islands to participate in coral restoration.

This year the Department of Tourism is also engaged in programs designed to revitalize the country’s agricultural industry as a means of supporting tourism focused on health and wellness.

“We have some of the most fertile soil in the region, and over the years we’ve gotten away from agriculture,” she said. “One of the most important initiatives our new governor, Kenneth Mapp, is supporting is an increased focus on our farmers."

“Agriculture is critical,” continued Nicholson Doty. “It helps with health and education; it allows us to partner with the farmers. The residual for the tourism industry is more and more travelers are seeking farm-to-table experiences. You can’t sell health and wellness unless you are able to provide it.”

The emphasis on locally sourced cuisine is reflected in a new class of St. Croix restaurants that feature fare crafted with sustainability in mind.

For example, “There is a cool new restaurant named Zion in downtown Christiansted. They take an innovative approach to what is served on the menu,” said Nicholson-Doty. “Ninety percent of everything that is served is sourced locally,” and the restaurant offers guests the option of dining off the menu and simply sampling whatever the chef prepares for the table, she said.

Another new Christiansted restaurant, 40 Strand, offers unique dining offerings including Danish Smorrebrod, a traditional Danish open-face sandwich. The eatery also features vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.

In St. Thomas, long the territory’s signature attraction, the U.S.V.I. government is seeking to bring additional focus to the capital of Charlotte Amalie by encouraging island residents to move back into the upper loft spaces that exist across the historic town.

St. Thomas is one of the most popular cruise ship ports in the world (only Cozumel, Mexico and the Nassau, Bahamas exceeded St. Thomas’ 2.1 million cruise ship visitors in 2014). Yet while the city bustles with activity when cruise ships are in port, it tends to grow very quiet when the ships depart. Nicholson-Doty said her office and other agencies are working to make Charlotte Amalie “a real 24-hour city,” she said.

“St. Thomas is an international cruise ship center; we are very blessed in that regard. However what you want is sustainability for the long term,” she said. “That goes beyond just having a cruise port. You need a town that lives beyond when the cruise ships are gone. It doesn’t support your overall tourism development.”

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