`It's beautiful ... and no one's here'

Travel: Empty rooms and beaches have been the reality across the Caribbean since Sept. 11, when fear of flying set in.

War On Terrorism

The Response

October 10, 2001|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, Virgin Islands - The smooth, white sand at the Bolongo Bay Beach Club is almost footprint free these days. Among a row of chaises set out for sunning, just one is occupied - not by a tourist, but by a local woman. The weather is the best in 10 years, but today only one swimmer floats amid the aqua waters.

Business is so slow, even the iguanas that beg maraschino cherries are having a tough time.

"It's beautiful ... and no one's here," says Richard Doumeng, the resort's general manager.

In a normal year, about 40 rooms at the small resort would be full over the Columbus Day weekend. Today, only 22 are booked.

But empty rooms and empty beaches have been the reality across much of the Caribbean since Sept. 11, when fear of flying set in.

"A tropical storm is easier to comprehend. You can see the damage," Doumeng says. "This kind of crisis is hard to relate to because everything looks so good."

Over its decades as a tourist destination, St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has come to rely on American visitors. They arrive - mostly by plane - to unwind at the resorts, sip rum cocktails on the beach, dine on West Indian cuisine and shop for bargains. The island, where temperatures are in the 80s and the breezes are balmy, is just a three-hour flight from the mainland. Now, with the sudden American aversion to flying and vacationing, the tourists are staying home and there is no economic safety net.

When 300 members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers decided not to cancel their annual meeting here, it was news in the local paper.

U.S. soil, too

But here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the tourism industry, though disappointed, is approaching its loss of business with compassion and sensitivity. Hanging prominently on the sides of buildings or waving from car antennas, the red, white and blue is a constant reminder that this island is also U.S. soil. And the locals understand that as desperately as they need the income, people have more on their minds than vacations.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, while tourism officials in Jamaica and Puerto Rico launched quick campaigns to lure back business, their counterparts in the U.S. Virgin Islands held back, reflecting on their own recovery from devastating hurricanes.

They will go forward this week with promotions for free airfare and reduced hotel rates aimed at a dozen U.S. cities, including Baltimore. But the tone will be subdued and with a patriotic theme: Sea to Shining Sea.

They also are putting together free vacation packages for the relief workers in New York.

"We know what it's like to survive a tragedy," said Pamela Richards, commissioner of tourism. "I am very aware right now that people don't want to hear a message about how beautiful our beaches are here."

Impossible to ignore

Along a fine sand beach reputed to be one of the world's 10 best, a Virginia couple are the only tourists in sight. Andrew Ham and Brenda Currie, from Falls Church, had been told that Magen's Bay would be crowded on a Saturday afternoon. But they're not entirely surprised that it's not. The night before, after a game of tennis, they stepped in for a drink at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort. At 9 p.m., the bar was empty. "No one was at the pool either," Currie said. "It's absolutely dead."

In the boutiques crowding the historic warehouse district, shopkeepers stand ready to slash the prices on watches and diamond bracelets, linen suits and crystal vases - if only some customers would show up to dicker.

In Little Switzerland, which sells pricey jewelry, six employees were just laid off. But the sales staff, which works on commission, remains intact. "Up to 9-11, we were tracking 120 percent sales [ahead of last year], which is phenomenal for September," said Jeremy Matthews, a manager. "Then ... " He turned thumbs down.

His staff is moving faster when a customer walks in the door these days. "Nobody can take it easy," he said.

Things looked much the same at Jewels Diamond Boutique downtown, where a dozen clerks stand chatting among themselves, idly waiting for somebody to walk through the door. Movado watches normally priced at $275 are going two for $250.

Cabdrivers line up at the beaches, restaurants and the airport, where planes arrive just one-third full. In the airport terminal, tiny cups of magenta punch that are offered in welcome go undrunk.

At Craig & Sally's in Frenchtown, diners can walk in unannounced for $25-a-plate yellowtail snapper, where ordinarily reservations would be required days in advance.

Behind the scenes, locals are so concerned about the potential economic toll, they are cutting back on basics, such as groceries, and even postponing dental appointments.

Economically, "if America caught a cold, we're catching pneumonia," says James Eilen, director of sales for A.H. Riise, which owns or leases space to a string of shops.

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