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Partial Budget Allocation Revives V.I. Dept. of Tourism Operations

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The Virgin Islands Department of Tourism (D.O.T.) received a crucial partial budget release on Tuesday, providing a lifeline for essential operations over the next three months. This crucial funding allows the department to maintain key services and settle some pending vendor payments.

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jenifer O’Neal confirmed the development during a WTJX Radio interview. “The department now has access to their fiscal year 2024 budget, at least for three months,” Ms. O’Neal explained. “This includes October, November, and December funds, now available in the ERP system, enabling immediate spending.”

This development follows intense scrutiny and reporting by the Consortium on the prolonged delay of D.O.T.’s budget, which led to operational challenges and workforce reductions. Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, a vocal advocate for resolving the funding impasse, has communicated concerns to the Dept. of Finance and OMB leaders, urging a swift resolution.

Sources revealed to the Consortium that Ms. O’Neal expressed frustration with the D.O.T. and Dept. of Finance for alleged excessive spending by the D.O.T. The exact amount of this overspending, rumored to be in the tens of millions, remains unclear, as is the Department of Tourism’s stance on these claims. Efforts to reach Joseph Boschulte, D.O.T. Commissioner, for comments have been unsuccessful.

Senator Frett-Gregory, chairing the influential Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, intends to hold a Senate hearing to delve deeper into this issue. Key officials from OMB, Dept. of Finance, and Dept. of Tourism are expected to testify.

The D.O.T.’s budget, primarily funded by the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund (TARF) from Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues, was proposed at $32.1 million by the Bryan administration for FY2024. This funding is vital for the department to stay competitive in the tourism market. Despite the hold on its budget, which hindered financial commitments for months, the recent release of funds is a welcome relief for vendors. However, the extent to which the three-month allocation will cover the backlog of operations and vendor invoices is yet to be determined.

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Tourism

Security Upgrade Proposed for Havensight Mall with Peace Officer Status

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Security personnel at Havensight Mall may soon receive a significant boost in authority as Bill 35-0238, aimed at elevating their status to peace officers, has passed its initial legislative test. Sponsored by Senator Milton Potter, the bill specifically targets qualified enforcement officers from the Government Employees’ Retirement System (GERS) who are stationed at the mall.

Senator Potter highlighted the urgent need for enhanced security measures at Havensight, a prime destination for both locals and nearly a million tourists each year. He cited recent violent incidents, including a 2022 shooting during a robbery attempt and a fatal shooting in the parking lot in October 2023, as key drivers for the proposed security overhaul.

The bill advocates for peace officer training for these officers at the V.I. Police Academy, enabling them to respond to emergencies, enforce laws, and maintain order on the premises. Roy Moorehead, chief security officer of the mall, supports this move as a strategic step to strengthen the safety and security framework at Havensight Mall, enhancing its reputation as a secure venue and boosting local tourism and spending.

Support from GERS and the VIPD, including Assistant Commissioner Sidney Elskoe, underscores the initiative’s alignment with broader public safety goals. The financial impact on the government is minimal, as GERS plans to allocate Havensight Mall’s budget to train and increase the salaries of four to six officers.

During the legislative discussions, Senator Franklin Johnson reminded the GERS representatives of the extensive duties that come with peace officer status, applicable even beyond the mall’s boundaries. Senator Novelle Francis expressed support but cautioned about additional considerations such as insurance, retirement benefits, and training expenses.

Despite widespread legislative backing, Senator Kenneth Gittens opposed the bill, proposing instead to bolster the existing tourist-oriented police efforts by channeling funds directly to the V.I. Police Department and suggesting a merger between the V.I. Port Authority and the West Indian Company to enhance the police budget.

The bill now advances to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, moving one step closer to potentially transforming the security landscape at Havensight Mall.

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Tourism

St. Thomas USVI Named Top Emerging Summer Destination by Expedia

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Expedia’s latest report has named St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, as the leading emerging destination for summer travel this year. The island has witnessed a significant 45 percent increase in search activity over the past year, attributed to enhanced air service from the mainland U.S. The allure of a Caribbean getaway that does not require a passport for U.S. tourists has boosted St. Thomas’s appeal.

Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte expressed his enthusiasm about the recognition, “It’s terrific to make it into the top ten of Expedia’s Summer Outlook, but clinching the top spot is truly extraordinary. Our team is elated by this achievement and remains committed to promoting our beautiful territory.”

Other destinations on Expedia’s list include San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Cleveland, Ohio, which are drawing attention for their vibrant cultural scenes and dynamic city life. San Juan has recorded a 35 percent rise in travel interest thanks to its picturesque beaches and historical richness, while Cleveland is gaining traction for its trendy atmosphere and diverse recreational opportunities.

The survey further identified Indianapolis, Indiana; Las Vegas, Nevada; Napa County, California; and Honolulu, Hawaii as popular travel spots. Each city offers unique attractions, from Indianapolis’s family-friendly downtown to Las Vegas’s entertainment and nightlife, and from Napa’s vineyard-covered landscapes to Honolulu’s balance of urban and natural attractions.

Emerging destinations like Mackinac Island, Michigan, and Kauai, Hawaii, also made the list, offering visitors serene, nature-oriented getaways. Mackinac Island is ideal for a relaxing summer retreat, whereas Kauai offers a tranquil escape amidst lush tropical scenery.

This broad spectrum of destinations highlights the diverse interests of U.S. travelers, ranging from urban exploration and cultural immersion to peaceful retreats in picturesque settings.

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Tourism

Governor Bryan Launches Annual Tourism Feedback Summit for USVI

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Governor Albert Bryan has unveiled plans for an inaugural one-day summit aimed at gathering extensive feedback from stakeholders in the US Virgin Islands’ tourism industry. Announced during a Monday press briefing, the summit is envisioned as a post-season debrief to celebrate successes and identify opportunities for improvement.

Governor Bryan emphasized the importance of such a debrief, stating, “Following any major event, a thorough review of what worked, what didn’t, and how we can enhance operations is crucial.” He highlighted the summit’s goal to foster more cohesive operations across various sectors such as transportation, lodging, food & beverage, and excursions. The idea is to gather direct feedback from those closest to the tourism activities, encapsulating the experiences of both land-based and maritime visitors.

The governor drew upon his recent experience at the Seatrade convention in Miami, where the performance of the US Virgin Islands’ tourism was praised. “Our industry leaders are enthusiastic about our current trajectory,” he noted. Nevertheless, he sees the local summit as a strategic move to tailor discussions to the specific context and challenges of the USVI.

Governor Bryan has tasked Joe Boschulte and his team at the Department of Tourism with the summit’s organization, stressing the urgency of translating feedback into actionable plans. These actions, according to him, will involve collaborations among the executive branch, the legislature, and private sector partners to amplify the past season’s successes into future enhancements.

Highlighting the tourism sector’s significance, Governor Bryan remarked, “Tourism accounts for 70 percent of our economy, necessitating ongoing enhancement to maintain and boost our market position.” This new annual summit represents a proactive step in ensuring the US Virgin Islands remain a premier destination by aligning stakeholder efforts and directly addressing the industry’s unique challenges.

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