Sept. 26, 2001 – A subdued and attentive luncheon crowd listened Wednesday as Richard Doumeng, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, told them the stark facts of the territory's current tourism crisis.
"My talk was originally scheduled before Sept. 11 — and even at that time the situation was grim," Doumeng said. "I was prepared then to say we were experiencing the worst September and October in our history." The months are traditionally the slowest time of year for tourism in the territory.
"Today," he told his audience, the weekly meeting of Rotary II at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort, "you could take all the tourists on St. Thomas and St. John and put them into the Reef's 500 rooms and probably have rooms left over."
Graphically describing the territory's plummeting economy since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland, Doumeng said, "It's worse than a hurricane. It's devastating, but you can't see the devastation yet." Then, he added, "There are some who seem to refuse to admit there's something wrong.
"There is something wrong."
Doumeng said the emphasis right now within the territory's hospitality sector is on surviving the next 90 days. From an occupancy standpoint, "No hotel in the territory should be open now, but what would the message be if it got out that the V.I. hotels were closing?" he said.
In the last two weeks, at his property alone, he said, "We've had 500 room nights of cancellations. That's $60,000." He is the general manager of Bolongo Bay Beach Club and Villas, which is owned by his family. He and they have been in the hotel business on St. Thomas for more than two decades.
All told, "St. Thomas and St. John have received 23,000 room cancellations for September and October," he said. "That's 11,500 taxi rides, if the guests just use a taxi every other day." He added, "Some major properties on the island [of St. Thomas] could close."
And on St. Croix, he continued, the Divi Carina Bay Resort "had nine guests last night, out of 150 rooms."
Even in such dire straits, however, Doumeng was not without hope or suggested solutions. "The answer is partnering with the airlines and getting some temporary economic relief from the government," he said.
Last Friday, representatives of the territory's four major business associations, the two Chambers of Commerce and the two Hotel and Tourism Associations, took an emergency disaster relief proposal to the executive branch. On Wednesday morning, Doumeng told the Rotarians, representatives of the four groups had a follow-up meeting with Tourism Department officials and the administration's top financial officers. "It was a good cross-section," he said. "I'm more encouraged today than I was yesterday."
To date, no statements solidarity with or proposals of assistance for the territory's hospitality industry have been forthcoming from Government House, the Tourism Department or the Legislature. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull did not attend Friday's meeting and is in New York City this week.
Doumeng said those at Wednesday morning's meeting discussed getting some kind of a relief package from the government for the hotel industry. "We need some kind of tax relief, or a moratorium on WAPA payments," he said. "We're looking to people who hold our insurance policies and the banks who hold our mortgages."
On Friday, the business leaders proposed a four-month postponement on the payment WAPA bills and gross receipts taxes.
However, he noted, the government is bound by the $300 million bond indebtedness the administration took on two years ago to bail the territory out of an economic crisis. "Because of that, we can't waive taxes," he said.
"I'm not a finance guy," Doumeng continued, "but everything is tied up in the bond issue of the past. We have leveraged our future. It's trickier to do something now because of our bond obligations."
He expressed dismay at actions in the Legislature this week. On Tuesday, the body added an extra $2.8 million to the record $551 million Fiscal Year 2002 budget through overrides of earlier Turnbull vetoes. "Where do they think the money is coming from? When are they going to look at the numbers and see what they're doing?" he asked.
"Look at other governments all around the country. They're cutting back. And they're working together."
For the local private sector, working with the airlines to get people to the territory is "what we have to do," Doumeng said. "We have to locally find ways to help American Airlines and others to keep the flights we have coming into the territory."
It's still too soon after the terrorist attacks to start an aggressive marketing campaign, he said. But "when the time is appropriate, we will extend an offer to the rescue workers in New York to come to the territory. We will work with airline partners to try to finance 500 hotel rooms with 1,000 paid airline tickets."
While other Caribbean islands such as St. Kitts and Nevis have already announced such free stays to New York and Washington firefighters and police officers and their families, he said, they "aren't offering airfare. The difficulty is absorbing that cost. But we will do this, somehow."
Another initiative under consideration, he said, is an idea borrowed from the cruise lines, which offer passengers free airfare to their ports of embarkation. "They're great promotions," he said. "We'll do something similar. Say, if you book two passengers, the second one flies free, with the second one paid for by the government."
He said he has established a "dialogue" with Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and he hopes she will be receptive to the private sector's ideas.
"We've got to promote the infrastructure in the V.I.," Doumeng said. "There was a time when I got sick of hearing constantly 'America's Caribbean.' Now, we've got to use it. We have to show that the infrastructure is in place, we have the U.S. Coast Guard, we are a safe American destination."
After his speech, Doumeng was asked about Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin's public remarks to the effect of the hotels laying people off to take advantage of the mainland tragedy. Doumeng almost couldn't answer. "That is so profoundly beyond what is going on," he said. "Don't these people look around? The hotels are empty. It's certainly not a political move."


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