Skip to content

The US Virgin Islands sees surge in tourism

April 09, 2022
8 min read
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Later this year, the U.S. Virgin Islands will mark five years since back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes caused devastating damage throughout the territory. As the anniversary of Irma and Maria approaches, though, U.S. Virgin Islands tourism officials are celebrating what they view as a major (and perhaps unlikely) accomplishment: an unprecedented surge in visitors to its three islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Far more visitors are flying to the islands than even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, new data shows that in recent months, no U.S. state or territory has seen its air traffic rise at a higher rate when compared with some pre-pandemic periods. According to Transportation Security Administration numbers shared in a report this week by Airlines for America, an organization advocating on behalf of major U.S. airlines, U.S. Virgin Islands airport checkpoints received 14% more passengers in February 2022 compared to February 2019 – more than a year before COVID-19 caused mass shutdowns. That topped all other U.S. states and territories.

Joseph Boschulte, commissioner for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, told TPG in an interview this week that February was no fluke, either.

“2021 was the best year the U.S.V.I. has ever had in terms of [air travel] to the territory,” he said.

At a time when travel – especially overseas travel – is still rebounding from more than two years of disruption, leaders in the U.S. Virgin Islands believe they are on a path to success like they’ve never seen. It’s a trend from which they believe visitors will benefit.

Rebound from hurricanes and a pandemic

It’s safe to say the last five years have not been easy for those living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, particularly anyone who makes a living from tourism.

In a territory where tourism accounts for 60% of the gross domestic product, it’s been incredibly painful to go through two major disruptions.

Damage in September 2017 at the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas, more than a week after Hurricane Irma made landfall. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

First came the two hurricanes in 2017, from which Boschulte said the islands were “finally turning a corner” in early 2020, with the last of the islands’ major hotels damaged by the twin storms reopening. Then, COVID-19 forced the U.S. Virgin Islands to shut down for a couple of months and reopen in the summer of 2020, only to have a surge force another temporary shutdown later in the summer.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Since September 2020, though, the islands have remained open to tourists, and things have only improved during that time.

“We are rocking and rolling,” Boschulte told TPG. “Our numbers every day coming into the territory are very, very strong.”

'No passport necessary' has helped during the pandemic

The current tourism surge in the U.S. Virgin Islands is eclipsing not just pre-pandemic times, Boschulte said, but pre-hurricane, too.

How is this possible?

“I think we definitely benefited from the reality that we are a U.S. territory,” Boschulte said, noting that U.S. visitors do not need a passport to enter – presenting, if nothing else, one fewer psychological barrier to overseas travel during an unpredictable pandemic.

It's not to say there aren’t COVID-19 protocols. Even domestic visitors have to go through certain steps when they visit the islands. Like a lot of international destinations, the territory has a portal even U.S. visitors have to go through, and currently only vaccinated U.S. residents can enter without submitting a COVID-19 test.

Boschulte told TPG that data from that same portal has made it easy for tourism officials to see that visitors to the islands have been returning – and in short order.

“That’s always a test,” he said. “If people come visit a first time and then decide within a short [window] to return.”

Panoramic view of St. Thomas. (Photo by sorincolac/iStock/Getty Images)

Success story

Considering the COVID-19 protocols the U.S. Virgin Islands still requires during the pandemic, the fact that visitors don’t need a passport can’t be the only reason the islands have seen surging tourism numbers, right?

Boschulte said it’s no accident.

During the pandemic, he said tourism officials on the islands have ramped up marketing efforts, making a targeted pitch to residents in the eastern U.S., who represent the vast majority of visitors to the territory.

With cruise traffic nonexistent in the U.S. Virgin Islands for about a year and a half during the pandemic, Boschulte said tourism officials in the territory spent much of the last couple of years appealing to potential U.S. travelers about the islands being open and safe – and then working with tourism sector companies on the islands to ensure promises of a safe visit are fulfilled.

In turn, he said local tourism industries have been pleased with the business they’ve gotten as they’ve pivoted from decades of serving a largely cruise-oriented clientele to focusing more on "overnight" guests.

“What people realized is that an overnight guest is in town for five to seven nights, and they eat breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Boschulte said. “Whereas a cruise guest is in town five to seven hours.”

Related: 9 amazing places to use points for a trip to the Caribbean

Boschulte said tourism officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands have also gone to great lengths to "stay in front of the airlines," keeping them abreast of COVID-19 data and protocol, in hopes of forging partnerships that will lead to more tourists making their way to the islands.

Booking

Even as the islands see record numbers of overnight guests, tourism leaders already have hope for what the future will bring. Boschulte said his staff is tracking a spike in business licenses being issued across the territory, which they interpret as a sign more investment is coming to the islands. It's investment he believes will ultimately lead to an improved experience for visitors.

The Westin St. John. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

That investment is also taking shape in the form of construction at large-scale resorts. Just this year, Marriott is expected to unveil a brand-new property and cut the ribbon on another following a multimillion-dollar rebuild.

The Noni Beach Resort – a new Marriott Autograph Collection property and the first such brand in the U.S. Virgin Islands – is slated to open this summer. The property includes 94 guest rooms, a beachfront infinity pool and swim-up bar.

Related: The best points hotels in the Caribbean

Later this summer, Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef Beach Resort & Spa is also set to reopen following a $250 million rebuild.

A word of caution regarding booking, though: What’s good for the local tourism industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands does not necessarily translate to cheap rates for visitors. Boschulte said properties on the islands have seen high occupancy rates even at more expensive points during the year.

“People are paying the highest rates to come, and they’re returning,” he said.

Related: Review: The Westin St. John

Looking ahead

With no sign of occupancy rates dropping and only more hotel rooms coming to the U.S. Virgin Islands, there’s also another change happening: The cruise lull is ending. The territory is starting to see the number of daily visitors from cruises pick up, which will only mean more activity on the islands. Boschulte said those visitors will always be a part of the islands’ economy – with the U.S. Virgin Islands having served as an “anchor destination” for cruise ships for decades.

However, after close to five years that saw two devastating hurricanes and two-plus years of a global pandemic adding an unprecedented layer of unpredictability, Boschulte is clear on what he envisions as the future of travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We’re very hopeful that travelers – particularly U.S. travelers – recognize that the U.S.V.I. is a viable vacation destination,” he said.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023