Traveling to the British Virgin Islands for the first time since the territory was devasted by Hurricane Irma last September is an eye-opening experience for those familiar with what was once a flourishing, high-end tourism destination.
Where dozens of taxis used to await incoming passengers from the main airport on St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands, only five were present on March 31. And while the waters between St. Thomas and Tortola, BVI, used to be bustling with yachts, speed boats, and other vessels, only a few ferries traversed the ocean on that day.
Tourism data from 2017 reflects the relatively quiet, somber atmosphere.
According to BVI Premier Orlando Smith’s 2018 budget address given in March, the total number of visitors declined by 33 percent from 2016 to 2017, cruisers declined by 41 percent, day trippers declined by 33 percent, and overnight visitors declined by 18 percent. Smith said the 2017 totals were roughly equivalent to 2013 numbers.
The premier added that daily hotel occupancy declined from about 2,700 rooms before the storm to 336 as of March 1, and the number of charter and bareboat yacht berths at sea declined from 3,800 pre-storm to 1,584 as of March 1.
People in the territory are quick to talk about how things haven’t been the same since Irma.
“We have a long, long way to go,” said BVI resident Julian Willock, a member of the territory’s opposition Virgin Islands Party. “We are open for business – schools are open, courts are open, ferries are running again – but we’re not back on our feet yet.”
Still, while the islands have struggled over the last seven-plus months, they have also avoided total economic catastrophe. This is largely due to a financial sector that barely skipped a beat, despite dealing with the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Caribbean.
Within days of Irma, the BVI Financial Services Commission announced that its online portal was back up and running, allowing firms to incorporate companies and make regulatory filings.
The territory’s major law firms were also able to evacuate their employees from the islands. Many of those employees came to Cayman on temporary work permits to continue carrying out BVI-related business.
“Our financial services business was built to allow people to do BVI business from anywhere in the world, and to continue business regardless of the physical conditions in this jurisdiction,” stated a Sept. 11 announcement from Elise Donovan, the head of the Hong Kong-based BVI House Asia. “BVI has proven success with, and continues to be the go-to jurisdiction for, Asian and Chinese foreign direct investment. More than 40 percent of BVI corporate vehicles are owned and used successfully by Asian business leaders and high net worth individuals.”
Financial data from the third quarter of 2017 shows that the BVI even experienced a slight uptick in company incorporations – the sector’s main service – with 7,621 companies forming in Q2 and 7,639 forming in Q3, when Irma struck. Data for Q4 of last year still has not been released.
The territory’s commercial court also continued operating throughout the immediate aftermath of Irma, though hearings took place at the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court headquarters in St. Lucia. After several months, court finally reopened in the BVI in mid December – one of the reasons for the delay was because government did not insure the commercial court building, requiring some US$255,000 of “donations” from law firms to fund repairs there.
The steady performance of the financial services industry, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the territory’s public budget, allowed government to keep revenue losses to a minimum.
“Thankfully the financial services industry was all able to engage their business continuity plans and could continue to operate remotely from abroad,” said Smith during his budget address. “We thank God that VIRRGIN – our business incorporations platform – remained intact to accommodate this and thereby ensure an important revenue stream for the territory at its most critical time.”
According to Smith, government’s revenue was about US$293 million last year, a decrease of some US$30 million from the year prior.
“This means that even with revenue from financial services performing well above expectation, we brought in thirty million dollars or 9.3 percent less than was budgeted,” Smith said. “This demonstrates the significant impact of the storms in the months following their landing.”
Despite the relatively small revenue dip, government will still have to borrow heavily to help fund an estimated US$722 infrastructure repairs and other recovery projects.
Government has begun borrowing, inking a US$65 million loan with the Caribbean Development Bank in March.
“It is time to get our livelihoods back on track. It is time for us to get on with the several projects and initiatives that are identified for each ministry in the loan agreement. And, it is time to weather proof our infrastructure and rebuild it in a way that offers some resiliency to unprecedented weather patterns,” BVI Premier Orlando Smith said when his government finalized the loan. “Today’s project launch signals that we are moving full steam ahead, and getting on with it, so that we can put this territory in a much better place tomorrow than it was yesterday, and is today.”
Government is looking to borrow about $400 million more, with the help of loan guarantees from the United Kingdom.
The subject of the loan guarantees was controversial due to the accompanying U.K. requirements In exchange, the U.K. government will establish an agency to monitor the BVI’s spending of that money, and will also conduct an audit of the territory’s public finances – and require reforms based on the results of that audit.
The requirements sparked outcry from some residents, with one opposition legislator even likening the U.K. mandates to “economic slavery.” A prominent billboard was installed downtown, reading, “We Virgin Islanders do not support the U.K. framework for the BVI recovery plan.”
Nevertheless, BVI Premier Orlando Smith maintained that the U.K. guarantees are vital because they will allow government to save tens of millions of dollars by borrowing at 1 percent interest rather than the higher rates that would be charged with non-guaranteed loans.
“It is time for the raw sewerage to stop running in our streets and ghuts [gutters]. It is time for us to build a stronger and more resilient electricity grid. It is time for us to restore our criminal justice system, including rebuilding accommodation for our judiciary,” Smith urged in a March speech in favor of taking the U.K. guarantees. “It is time for our prisoners housed in St. Lucia to be back at Balsam Ghut where they can be in touch with their families and friends. It is time to find shelter for those made homeless.”
Over the protests of the opposition and some in Smith’s own administration, government passed legislation at the end of March to accept the U.K.’s loan guarantees and accompanying requirements. Government is currently in discussions with potential creditors to borrow the funds.