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BUSINESS-DOMINATED TOURISM AUTHORITY SOUGHT

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The major business organizations in the territory have come together to develop a V.I. Tourism Authority that will be dominated by the private sector.
Members of the St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John Chambers of Commerce, the two districts' Hotel and Tourism Associations, and the St. Croix Accommodations Council met Thursday on St. Croix to finalize details of draft legislation that seeks to reform tourism management in the territory.
The membership of their proposed V.I. Tourism Authority would comprise more individuals from the private sector than from the government, St. Croix Chamber president Noel Loftus said.
He said such popular tourist destinations as Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and Las Vegas have either private or public-private tourism organizations.
"This is nothing new," he said. "We're very late in doing this."
A primary issue behind the proposal is keeping the 8 percent hotel occupancy tax, which generates some $11 million a year, away from the government's general fund. By law, room tax revenues are to go toward marketing the territory's tourism product. But for years money has been siphoned off for other purposes, including meeting government financial obligations.
The private sector coalition will present to the governor and the Legislature a bill to create a V.I. Tourism Authority that "would segregate the room tax money and have it put in a trust account," Loftus said.
At present, the Tourism Department has only $3 million to $4 million for advertising, he said. Without aggressive marketing, he added, the territory's tourism industry, particularly on St. Croix, will decline further.
The Virgin Islands, which ranked sixth in tourism overnight arrivals in the Caribbean in 1993, had slipped to 11th by 1997, according to the most recent World Tourism Organization statistics.
St. Croix's annual room-occupancy rate is currently 45 percent. According to the St. Croix Accommodations Council, increasing the rate to 75 percent would generate some 1,200 new jobs.
"With our economy in a downward spiral," Loftus said, "we need fresh money. The quickest way is tourism."

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