The summer months in the BVI can be a period of uncertainty for several businesses throughout the Territory.
Whether it is the hurricane season or idyllic weather elsewhere that keeps travelers at home tending to gardens and barbecuing in backyards, the end result remains the same: a quieter BVI. Each year, there are plenty of signs of the impending slow season. Several restaurants and hotels shutter their doors, while hand written signs are posted in windows letting customers know they will re-open in October.
On the water, charter boat companies move their fleet to dry dock or to safer anchorages as a precaution for potential hurricane impact, while cruise ship arrivals are few and far between. As dire as this scenario is, there is some relief and it hails from only 90 miles west of the BVI. Each July, the Puerto Rican Navy—a name that boaters from the United States territory affectionately call themselves—stage beach parties, revel at random bars and restaurants, and shop at local supermarkets giving the BVI a much needed economic injection.
The almost weeklong gathering in the BVI is known as Christmas in July. This year, the Puerto Rican Navy made the trip to the BVI with its largest fleet to date. Its size was evident when hundreds of boats and partygoers filled Pond Bay on Virgin Gorda.
“When Puerto Ricans go on vacation, they want to go where the fleet is going,” organizer Javier Lopez said. “We like to hang out together. We call ourselves the navy because we stick together; we help each other and have fun together.”
Mr. Lopez is the President of JL Marketing in Puerto Rico. He doesn’t take credit for starting Christmas in July, but accedes that he has taken it “to the next level.” He first got involved with the event six years ago. Since then, it has grown so much, the event now has sponsors, including banks and beer and rum companies in Puerto Rico. He explained that beach permits, bands and other costs have to be offset with sponsorship because partygoers are not charged admission to such events. There are even more expenses involved with the Leverick Bay Poker Run, which he too has helped double in size over the past seven years with strong support from Puerto Rican boaters.
As a member of Club Nautico San Juan, Mr. Lopez has good access to the majority of boaters in Puerto Rico. Whenever there is an event, such as Christmas in July, Lopez communicates with boaters through e-mail and on a one-on-one basis, which he has found to be very effective.
He said the Puerto Rican Navy comprises of the “one-percenters” or “high-end” market in Puerto Rico. On average, the annual income of the boaters is $600,000 to $1.5 million. The territory, which has a population of about 3.6 million people, is the third most populated island in the Caribbean.
“This is an upscale niche of Puerto Rico,” Mr. Lopez explained. The BVI Tourist Board (BVITB) helps facilitate on-site immigration services and entertainment and according to Mr. Lopez, they, have always supported the Puerto Rican Navy. “They help a lot,” he said. “And why wouldn’t they? We are key to the islands’ tourism. We contribute a lot to the economy of the British Virgin Islands.” BVITB Director, Sharon Flax-Mars said she doesn’t know of any other demographic that travels to the Territory in such large numbers at any one time. The proximity of the two territories and their mutual love of power boating are some of the reasons why it is possible, she added.
“They are very important to the economy, especially at a time of year when we don’t have a peak in US visitors,” Ms. Flax Mars said. “It gives us a little boost going into the slow season.” She explained that a lot of the tourists from Puerto Rico utilize marina services, and this year during Christmas in July, The Moorings and Sunsail saw an increase in the number of boats that were chartered. Mr. Lopez estimates that in July, as many as 2,000 boats of all sizes with an average of five persons on board made the trip to the BVI from Puerto Rico. During Christmas in July alone, there were at least 800 boats, according to Mr. Lopez.
“We didn’t reach higher numbers because the sea conditions were very rough,” Mr. Lopez said. “About 30 percent of the smaller boats stayed at Culebra.” To avoid the rough passage between the islands, some Puerto Ricans took an airplane to Virgin Gorda and then rendezvoused with friends on bigger boats at the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbour. Ms. FlaxMars said this is nothing new. She recalls 20 years ago when she was employed by American Eagle, the men would make the trip to Virgin Gorda by boat and the women travelled by plane.
“It is nice to see that the trend is coming back,” Ms. Flax Mars said. “For a while, they stopped coming, at least not in the numbers we are seeing today.” The BVITB treats the Puerto Rico market similar to the United States, the United Kingdom and Latin American countries. It has contracted a public relations and marketing firm there to focus and attract potential visitors from Puerto Rico. The BVITB previously had an office there but it is no longer operational.
Currently, the BVITB does not maintain specific records of Puerto Rican visitors because they are tallied as US visitors. “However, we can say from what we have seen, from the information that we have received from some of the hoteliers, that the numbers are up from the Puerto Rican market,” Ms. Flax-Mars said. BVI businesses that benefit the most from the Puerto Rico visitors are the ones who adapt, the BVITB Director stated.
“There has to be this acceptance that the Puerto Ricans are different than the average visitor,” Ms. Flax-Mars said. “They are very family oriented and activity driven.” In July, several Virgin Gorda businesses catered to the visitors by offering something they could relate to. Bitter End Yacht Club in North Sound had a guest chef from Puerto Rico, while Club Ecstasy and the Rock Cafe in The Valley brought in a Puerto Rican disc jockey and mixologist, to work alongside their bartenders.
“We found that those businesses which offered something that was a little familiar to Puerto Ricans tended to fare better than those who had nothing at all,” Ms. Flax-Mars said. Additionally, businesses need to start thinking ahead and preparing for the Puerto Rican invasion weeks in advance by stocking up on certain products, she advised, noting that several stores ran out of ice during Christmas in July. The BVITB Director also suggested hotels offer packages to cash in on the presence of Puerto Rican visitors.
“I think there are more opportunities for businesses to become more engaging,” Ms. Flax-Mars said. Nowadays, Puerto Ricans are not only visiting the BVI once a year. According to Lopez, there are other events like the August Emancipation Festival, Music Fest in Cane Garden Bay and Easter Festival on Virgin Gorda that are quickly becoming popular activities for the Puerto Rican Navy to frequent. “The Puerto Rican Navy loves the BVI, because they love the water,” Mr. Lopez said. “Once they go somewhere and they are happy, they will communicate by word of mouth and come back again and again.” Jorge Pierluisi considers himself a member of the Puerto Rican Navy. On a good year, he makes about five trips to the BVI with eight people, which includes friends and family. “What can I say, I am a fanatic,” Mr. Pierluisi confessed.
In late August, he had already visited twice and was planning a third trip by the end of the year. He normally makes stops at Virgin Gorda, Tortola, Norman Island and Jost Van Dyke. “We sometimes stay on the boat in the marina, or sometimes in a hotel,” Mr. Pierluisi said. “We go out to restaurants and sometimes take tours. The British Virgin Islands is one of my best vacations. I just try to go with the flow. I really don’t have a budget when I go there.” Although he stocks up the boat in Puerto Rico, he has to replenish supplies in the BVI, especially ice, food, alcohol and fuel. On average, he stays in the Territory for seven days.
“It has become a tradition,” Ms. Flax-Mars said. “A lot of them will tell you that they came here with their parents and now, they are bringing their kids. The BVI resembles what Puerto Rico was like 20 years ago. For them, it is a nostalgic experience.”