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  Issue Date: 4 / 2017  

America's Own Islands in the Sun

Norman Sklarewitz

Credit: U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism. Click image to enlarge.

        As a holiday destination, the U.S. Virgin Islands has almost everything a visitor could want – beautiful beaches, great dive locations, accommodations that range from luxury five-star resorts to charming B&Bs, a warm and friendly population and a vibrant culture, among other features.
                 It just lacks one thing: “awareness.” “Some Americans just aren’t knowledgeable about our Territory, and those who may know are still unsure about our location,” laments Beverly Nicholson-Doty, the Department of Tourism's Commissioner. It's true that most Americans who live on the East Coast, mainly in the Florida area, are familiar with the U.S. Virgin Islands. For them it's just an easy 2 hour and 45 minute flight from, say, Miami.
                 When it comes to folks living in the Midwest and on the West Coast, it's quite another matter.  Travelers within these regions are far more familiar with Hawaii or Mexico when it comes to picking a vacation getaway.  If you ask, you'll find not too many even know where the U.S. Virgin Islands are. “It's close to Puerto Rico,” quips Nicholson-Doty. More precisely, the three main islands – St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas – that make up the Territory are in the eastern Caribbean Sea, just 1,100 miles southeast of Miami.
                 It's logical to assume that the Territory now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands was originally settled by the Spaniards as were many other Caribbean islands. And it's true that Christopher Columbus did claim the islands for Spain after he sailed to the island today known as St. Croix in 1493.

Credit: U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism. Click image to enlarge.

                 But the Caribs, a fierce tribe of indigenous people, essentially kicked the Spanish settlers out. The tribes themselves eventually died out leaving the islands open to new colonization. By the 1600s, it was something of a free-for-all among European powers. Holland, Spain, France, England, the Knights of Malta and Denmark all expressed interest in the islands and for a while each flew its flag over the islands.
                 In the end, it was Denmark that established a settlement, first on St. Thomas in 1672, then another on St. John in 1694 and finally in 1733 St. Croix was taken over by the Danish West India Company. Plantations soon sprung up all over the islands but they began a dark page in the islands' history.
                 In 1685, St. Thomas was established as a slave-trading post. Over the years some 200,000 slaves, captured mainly in west Africa, were shipped to the Virgin Islands to work in the fields of cotton, sugar and indigo. St. John and St. Croix thrived on a plantation economy while St. Thomas was the trading center.
                 Stripped of their dignity and freedom and fed up with the harsh conditions, in 1733 slaves attacked St. John’s Fort Frederiksvaern in Coral Bay, crippling operations for six months. In 1792, Denmark announced the cessation of the trade in humans. However, freedom was not granted to slaves until 1848, when Moses “Buddhoe” Gottlieb led a revolution on St. Croix, 17 years before emancipation in the United States. The islanders now mark their freedom from slavery each year.  Emancipation Day, which is celebrated on July 3, is an important holiday for Virgin Islanders.
                 After the freeing of slaves and the discovery of the sugar beet that replaced sugar cane as a major export commodity, agriculture in the islands declined. The industrial revolution ended the need for the islands as a shipping port, thus changing the economic environment.
                 Little was heard of the islands until World War I, when the United States realized their strategic position and in 1817 negotiated the purchase of the islands from Denmark for $25 million in gold. Can you imagine just going out and buying a little Territory like that for cash?
                 This year, Virgin Islanders will commemorate 100 years of the handing over of ownership of the islands from Denmark to the U.S. Year-long celebrations will mark the event. Virgin Islanders are U.S. Citizens and American citizens don't need a passport to visit the Territory.
                 Although the islands were purchased in 1917, it wasn’t until 1927 that citizenship was granted to Virgin Islanders. Still, the tourism potential for the three tranquil Caribbean islands wasn't realized until the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba. Folks who used to fly over to holiday in Cuba looked for another nearby destination and the U.S. Virgin Islands was, in effect, rediscovered.
                 Since then, tourism has become the Territory's primary industry. The islands have two international airports. St. Thomas receives nonstop flights from a dozen major U.S. Cities while St. Croix has nonstop service from Miami, Atlanta and Puerto Rico, with multiple connections via each airport.
                 This past year, the islands welcomed some 2.5 million visitors. Of those,  approximately 1.7 million came aboard cruise liners that consider the U.S. Virgin Islands to be one of the top destination ports in the Caribbean. The majority of the cruise ships call to St. Thomas, which has two cruise ports: West Indian Company Limited dock and Crown Bay Marina. One of the many incentives that U.S. residents enjoy is the $1,600 duty free allowance.

Norman Sklarewitz brings to travel a solid background in hard-news reporting. This includes staff positions as a Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Tokyo and L.A. Bureau Chief with U.S. News & World Report. As a foreign correspondent, he reported on major international events throughout Asia, including the Vietnam War.
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