Small and Special
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) is a small exclusive up-market luxury destination, and if Hadassah Ward, the acting director for the BVI, has her way, this is exactly the way it will remain. In an economic environment where destinations actively seek to expand airports, add hotel rooms, increase attractions, and focus on mass marketing, director Ward finds that being small and special is the reason that many properties on the island have been running at almost full occupancy during some of the leanest years in recent history.
BVI is a country of almost 25,000 (2010) “landers” – (people born in the BVI) and its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$38,500 (CIA, 2004) – US$41,000 (qfinance.com) places if far above the Caribbean average of US$16,000 (CIA, 2002). The economy, one of the most stable and prosperous in the Caribbean, is decidedly dependent on tourism as it generates an estimated 45 percent of the national income. More than 934,000 tourists, mainly from the US (mostly from NYC; Boston; and Washington, DC), visited the islands in 2008. In addition, there are a sizeable number of visitors from London, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia, as well as a growing interest from the PRC. Most of the tourism income is generated by yacht charters. While cruise ships do not generate a significant cash flow, they are a major source of income for BVI taxi drivers who have a significant voice in the development of the industry.
According to director Ward, “Tourism is an important product to us, and we must excel at what we do.” To sustain tourism, Premier Ralph O’Neal (2009, February), reflecting on the decline of tourism, committed to sustaining the industry through initiatives that included subsidized transport service to Puerto Rico via LIAT, and infrastructure projects (i.e., renovation of the Cruise Ship Pier and tender dock). In addition, the International Finance Centre and the Tourist Board are partnering world-wide on many projects towards promoting the BVI’s to high net-worth and ultra high-net-worth markets (Virgin Islands Platinum News, July 14, 2010).
Other Income Streams
The BVIs are not totally dependent on tourism. According to the KPMG (2000) report, nearly 41 percent of worldwide offshore companies in the world were formed in the BVI, and it is now one of the world’s leading offshore financial centers.
Where and How
Just 60 miles east of Puerto Rico, visitors can enter the BVI by air from San Juan, PR (30 minutes), or St. Maarten, landing at Beef Island Airport (EIS) or by sea – taking the ferry from St. Thomas, USVI. The BVI includes Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke, plus over 50 smaller islands and cays of which approximately 15 are populated. The BVI capital and the home of approximately 18,000 citizens is Road Town on Tortola.
Discovered by Spain, settled by the Dutch, then captured by the English, BVI has been a desired destination since the 16th century. The idea of tourism and tour guides as an economic engine was introduced in 1936 by the Bigelow’s who owned the Guana Island Club. In 1953, in an attempt to encourage travelers to visit the BVIs, a Hotel Aid Ordinance was passed, the Fort Burt Hotel opened its doors, and the August Festival was introduced. Five year later (1958), the Sea View Hotel opened, and two years later (1960), the first cruise ship with 115 passengers from New York “discovered” the destination.
Recognizing the growing importance of the tourist to the economy, the government funded the BVI Tourist Association, and in the private sector, Little Denmark opened the first shop for tourists. Noting the growing interest in the destination by upscale vacationers, Little Dix Bay, Virgin Gorda, was officially opened by Laurence Rockefeller who (it is believed) invested US$8 million in the venture. In 1969, the Beef Island Airport opened, as did the Moorings, an international yachting operation.
Richard Branson (Virgin Atlantic Airlines) is building a new resort on Mosquito Island with 20 villas and beach-front dining powered solely by wind turbines and solar panels. Branson, who lives on nearby Neckar Island, feels that it is “…inexcusable for the Caribbean to need to use dirty fuels anymore when it has all these natural resources on its doorstep.” (Luis Andres Henao, Associated Press)
A Cloud in Paradise
According to reports in the BVI News (July 22, 2010), there is a growing number of thefts in the BVI, with 258 reported this year (an increase of 47 percent). While many robberies include pilfering of cell phones, laptops, IPODS, and handbags, as well as license plates, vehicle parts, and stereo systems, yachts and dinghy’s have also been stolen. Local police encourage everyone to keep cars and homes locked, and electronics and handbags secured.
To combat crime, the police force has developed a program that promises to enhance operational policing performance, improve detection, bring offenders to justice, protect borders, improve hiring practices, and implement programs to prevent illegal weapons from entering the country (Caribbean 360, February 27, 2009).
Optimistic About Tomorrow
The BVI has carved a unique place for itself in a very competitive industry and a fiscal market that leaves leading economists confused. Hadassah Ward fully understands the pressures to follow rather than lead; however, her Wesleyan University (Indiana) education in economics, combined with employment experience with the deputy governor, the executive council and other senior government and territory-elected officials, has provided her with the assurance and conviction that she is guiding the BVIs in the right direction.