marketAt the 2014 State of the Industry Conference organized by the Caribbean Tourism Organization in St. Thomas, keynote speaker Apple Leisure Group CEO Alex Zozaya emphasized the importance of keeping politics and bureaucracy out of the tourism industry if it’s expected to grow. Instead, Zozaya said, tourism should be run like the business that it is, with emphasis on attracting tourists with ease of access and the promise of an authentic, unique experience.

In bemoaning petty political squabbles, Zozaya made clear the importance of keeping politics, for its own sake, out of areas that are particularly prone to the effects of conflict. While labor, investment and trade laws might be necessarily political in some ways, Zozaya challenged conference attendees to focus more on the importance of tourism as a product. Policies that affect tourism should be structured to improve the product rather than to achieve political ends.

Zozaya noted that one of the major factors for international tourists in determining where to vacation is the severity of visa requirements. Less restrictive visa requirements make a location much more attractive to travelers, especially those who may have little travel experience under their belts. On a related note, Zozaya mentioned that 40 percent of travelers who used the services of Apple Leisure Group in the past couple years have been Americans traveling abroad for the first time. The proximity of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the entire Caribbean region to the United States, he said, is an asset other tourist destinations would love to have.

However, the importance of preserving the unique cultural identity of every Caribbean island should also be a part of the long-term plan for attracting and keeping tourists. The tourism experience on each island needs to authentically reflect the territory’s culture and traditions, discouraging the perception that a trip to St. John amounts to a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands and, by extension, that a trip to the USVI constitutes a trip to the Caribbean.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, travel and tourism account for about a third of jobs and nearly a third of the territory’s gross domestic product. It’s also a key source of investment money in the region. The factors pointed out by Zozaya are just some of the things U.S. Virgin Islands policymakers need to think about in the coming years as the Territory looks to increase the efficiency, hospitality and economic benefits of the tourism industry.

BoltNagi is a widely respected and well-established government relations law firm serving individuals, businesses and organizations throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.