In an upbeat end-of-year report, tourism officials in the US Virgin Islands took stock of the gains achieved in 2023 and predicted steady growth in arrivals and revenue in the coming year. A significant rebound in cruise arrivals at the islands’ two ports was hailed as a sign of the region’s continued resiliency.
Cruise Guests to St. Thomas Break 1 Million Mark
Cruising, hotel occupancy, airlift, and other tourism-related sectors all show promising results from 2023, and local travel officials are gearing up for a robust 2024, a year-end statement from the territory’s tourism department shows.
Cruise arrivals to St. Thomas reached 1.1 million between January 2022 and October 2023, nearly double the 660,000 arrivals recorded from January 2021 to September 2022. On St. Croix, 140,000 cruise guests visited, versus 44,000 during the earlier timeframe. Overall, the increases amount to about a remarkable 80% spike.
International arrivals in total for the fourth quarter of 2023 are not yet available but are projected to rise by nearly 40% compared to pre-pandemic 2019, with extended-stay guests spiking by 25%.
Besides cruise, other travel sectors are doing well, too. Air travel capacity is showing improvements following shortages of pilots and aircraft in 2022. In 2023, capacity from the US to St. Thomas rose by 21% and to St. Croix by 23%. The territory’s hotel occupancy level is roughly 61%.
“The US Virgin Islands has shown resilience and adaptability, even in challenging times. As we enter 2024, we are excited to build on our success and focus on key areas that will further elevate our destination,” said Joseph Boschulte, commissioner at the USVI Department of Tourism.
“Looking ahead to 2024, the US Virgin Islands will continue to strengthen its presence in the sports and entertainment arenas, as well as continue to build out cultural correlation with the Caribbean diaspora,” added Boschulte.
Expansion of Cruise Ports on The Horizon
The cruise ports at both St. Thomas and St. Croix were recently earmarked for a significant expansion of facilities. An announcement in October 2023 revealed that the Board of Governors for the Virgin Islands Port Authority approved an agreement with Royal Caribbean that will upgrade the cruise terminals and dredge the harbors to allow for the accommodation of larger ships.
The project, whose start date has not been announced, will modernize facilities and expand infrastructure at the Crown Bay Center, on St. Thomas, and at the Austin “Babe” Monsanto Marine Terminal, in Frederiksted, St. Croix.
The amount of the investment was not disclosed, but officials said the upgrades would be funded by the new Capital Cost Recovery Charge fee, which will be levied on visitors to both destinations who arrive aboard Royal Caribbean ships starting on January 1, 2024. The fee is $5 per guest.
Among the upgrades will be a dredging plan to enable Royal Caribbean’s three Freedom-class ships — Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, and Independence of the Seas, to dock at the islands. Freedom of the Seas is 1,111 feet long with a 30-foot draft.
Besides its partnership with Royal Caribbean, the USVI territory is a member of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, and expects the group to help boost cruise ship calls to St. Thomas and St. Croix.
“The partnership with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association will help us to increase cruise calls, create new experiences, collaborate with the local private sector, and generate employment opportunities. Cruise passenger projections indicate an 80% rise through 2024, with nearly 650,000 new passengers expected,” the USVI year-end report states.
The report noted that the territory will attempt to attract more visitors from Denmark, Italy, and Canada, and will prioritize increasing air capacity from the US, Canada, and Europe. Doing so could potentially lead ships to homeport in St. Thomas rather than use it only as a port of call.
St. John, the USVI’s third island, has no cruise port but is typically offered as an excursion by ferry on ships calling at St. Thomas. St. John’s key attraction is its rural, undeveloped land and the pristine Virgin Islands National Park, which occupies more than half the island.