US Virgin Islands Hotel & Tourism Association
Article and photos by Lori Abbotts, Daily News staff.
With many of the larger hotels and resorts still under construction after hurricanes Irma and Maria, St. Thomas and St. John are relying heavily on some midsized resorts to keep hotel-based tourism alive.
Despite some damage, Bolongo Bay Beach Resort opened directly after the storms, first to emergency responders and displaced Virgin Islanders, and as of June 1, to visitors as well.
Bolongo has been in operation since 1967, and has been run continuously by the Doumeng family since 1974. Patriarch Dick Doumeng and his wife, Joyce, headed the company for many years. His sons, Richard and his wife, Katarina, and Paul and his wife, Colleen, as well as their cousin Scott Nieboer, have operated the hotel since 1996.
Known for its casual and friendly atmosphere, the 75-room resort has long been an island icon, and Iggie’s, its beach party bar and grill, has been popular with visitors and locals alike.
“Bolongo has always been more about who we are than what we are,” said Richard Doumeng. “What we are is good, but who we are is better. Even before the storms, we’ve had hundreds of guests that could afford to stay at The Riz or the Westin or the Marriott, but chose to stay at a small intimate family-owned place.”
The team at Bolongo quickly got things up and running after the storms. The hotel itself was well-constructed, made of poured concrete, with concrete roofs and recessed balconies with slanted roofs, “making them virtually indestructible.” Solar panels and water heaters were torn off the roofs and the main open air restaurant was destroyed, but the canvas and wood structure was easily repairable.
“The lasting legacy, as we sit here today, a little over a year later, is what has happened to Bolongo Beach itself,” said Doumeng. “We are in the serious process of looking at beach reclamation and beach restoration, but the No. 1 project is flood mitigation, which we have been trying to implement in some way or another since Hurricane Marilyn.”
The beach has suffered severe horizontal and vertical erosion. Adding to the problem is the continual fresh water runoff from neighboring properties, creating a literal pong in front of Iggie’s, which remains closed. They have combined the live entertainment, sports bar and casual nature of Iggie’s with the larger poolside setting of their more upscale restaurant, creating Iggie’s Oasis.
“We live in a flood plain, and all of us, including Bolongo, we are an example of what the lack of foresight and land use plans does,” said Doumeng. “Iggie’s, as it is, still sitting there closed, is a very vivid visual example of the end product of no plan and no policy and not changing with the environmental realities.”
A flood mitigation plan has been on the books since 2013, and the Doumengs have been working with Public Works and Commissioner Petty, but the plan came to a halt after the storms, when it became apparent it needed to be re-examined and re-engineered.
As for the island as a whole, the larger resorts won’t be opening in time for this year’s upcoming tourist season, leaving it up to smaller properties like Bolongo, Emerald Beach, Secret Harbour and Gallows Point to hold the fort for the tourism industry.
“The largest hotel in the territory is now talking of opening during the second quarter of 2020, which has serious ramifications on primarily airlift,” said Doumeng. “I have no doubt eventually these places will be better than ever. But Bolongo and Emerald Beach and Secret Harbour and Gallows Point, we didn’t have the second quarter of 2020 option. I believe we are the poster children for resiliency. The midsized, privately owned and operated places open today deserve a little more awareness of what we are contributing to the economy, not just with employment but by keeping the economic engine functioning.”
But is it enough for now? Doumeng, past president of both the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association and the Caribbean Hotel Association, recognizes the challenges. The number of flights coming into the territory is crucial to its recovery, but limited available rooms make it harder to stay in the game with other islands competing for the tourism numbers. Although he feels the open hotels, timeshares and other accommodations will hold their own this upcoming tourist season, Doumeng worries about bars and restaurants, dive operators, retail stores and even Bolongo’s own award-winning 53-foot catamaran, Heavenly Days.
“As awesome as I think Bolongo and Emerald Beach and Secret Harbour are, ladies and gentlemen, if we are the three largest hotels on St. Thomas, then Houston, we have a problem,” he said. “Tourism Director Beverly Nicholson-Doty has done an incredible job scrambling to keep the airlift alive, but it’s on life support. When you see American and Jet Blue announcing new services to St. Maarten and Anguilla and St. Kitts, your heart sinks, because there are a limited number of aircraft. How do you deal yourself back into the table two years later? That’s going to be a big challenge. How do you reshuffle the deck to get yourself included again?”