MIAMI BEACH, Fla._Pam and I had our first truly memorable travel experience during the honeymoon we spent in the Virgin Islands. We started with a week on the smallest of the islands, St. John, where we had a tent for $10 a night in the national park at Cinnamon Bay. With its pristine waters and pure white sand beaches, it was paradise.
Fast forward many years, and many trips back later. I am meeting at Seatrade with Joseph Boschulte, Commissioner for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, who tells me that same experience today would cost quite a bit more. No doubt!
Of course, getting there is a little more involved as well, and Boschulte talked about requirements for visiting the islands in this time of COVID.
It starts by going to the USVI Travel Portal and filling out a form. Quoting from the portal:
“Every traveler aged five or older who enters the U.S. Virgin Islands by air or sea, including anyone in-transit to another destination, is required to use the USVI Travel Screening Portal and receive travel clearance (email with green QR code) before travel to the Territory.
“Travelers are required to produce their travel clearance to airline or marine transportation officials, or may not be able to board an aircraft or vessel to the Territory. Upon arrival in the Territory, travelers will be required to produce their original COVID-19 status documentation and travel clearance received from the Travel Screening Portal. Either digital or printed documents are acceptable.”
“The biggest requirement is have a negative (lab certified) COVID test within five days of travel,” said Boschulte, unless you were double vaccinated in the USVI. He added they are working on technology to validate US vaccination cards, which is coming soon, pointing out that 95 percent of travelers come from the United States.
Boschulte said one of the benefits of using the travel portal is it makes contact tracing easier and more accurate if a positive COVID case occurs, and should that happen, visitors can be more comfortable being in a country “under the US flag.”
The Caribbean is world’s busiest cruise destination, and St. Thomas is a mainstay for many cruise ships. As part of the COVID response, “each cruise line has to have an agreement with each destination,” he said. “We have agreements with three so far: Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Norwegian, and are in the process of finalizing agreements with Carnival, Disney and MSC.” They are also working on a master agreement to cover all cruise lines.
He also pointed out each cruise line has their own protocols for vaccinated vs. unvaccinated passengers. Generally, vaccinated guests can arrange their own shore excursions, while the unvaccinated have to observe stricter guidelines.
“One thing confirmed for me at Seatrade from talking to cruise executives is that passengers want 100 percent vaccinations, and don’t want two different experiences,” he said, adding, “Passengers aren’t afraid to cruise — they are afraid of being stuck on the water.”
Boschulte reaffirmed the importance of cruise tourism to the USVI. “Cruising is very important to our economy,” he said. “Some 20-30 percent of people are introduced to the USVI on a cruise — that’s 500,000 people a year.”
He said there are plans on the books for a third pier at Charlotte Amalie, the USVI’s capital city on St. Thomas, but that project is on a back burner until cruise volume returns. Pre-pandemic, he said there were days when they had 20,000 visitors in port.
Like the cruise lines, the environment is also a top concern.
“Having everybody home for months at a time showed us how beautiful (and pristine) our islands are,” he said. “We don’t forget sustainability is an upmost priority.”
Joseph Boschulte (USVI)
Cover photo: Dancers perform at the USVI Seatrade booth (Barker Photo)