The American way of life prevails today in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and it has swept across to the British Virgin Islands as well. The region's traditional recipes and remedies, as well as the self-reliant arts of fishing, boat building, farming, and even hunting, are all but gone. When islanders need something, they have it shipped from Miami. In clothes, cars, food, and entertainment, America, not Great Britain, rules the seas around both archipelagos. The British Virgins even use the U.S. dollar as their official currency, instead of British pounds.
Like the rest of the world, the Virgin Islands have felt the effects of the recent global recession. Because so much of the islands' economy depends on tourism, both the U.S.V.I. and the British Virgin Islands were hit hard when the recession started in about 2008, and they are still continuing to feel the effects of the recession to this day. The bad economy has touched nearly everyone in the Virgin Islands. Many people are employed in offshoots of the tourism industry: food suppliers, laundry services that wash hotel sheets, liquor dealers, shop keepers, and more. Jobs are a primary concern. The U.S. Virgin Islands were awarded $364 million in U.S. federal stimulus funding in 2009, and the funding is being used to stimulate the local economy during the recession. One of the major and predictable goals of the stimulus package is in job creation.
Although there has been a slight increase in tourism since the recession initially hit, the Virgin Islands have not seen the same number of visitors as they had prior to the recession. However, tourism officials are hopeful that the number of visitors will increase over the next few years. To attract visitors, the local tourist industry has been aggressively promoting itself, offering discounted hotel deals, cut-rate airfares, and promotions for destination weddings. Corporate travelers are increasingly being wooed, and sweet deals are being made with American companies to have their conventions in the islands.
To attract tourists, the government officials -- rather belatedly in some cases -- have come to realize that the natural environment must be protected. During the 1980s, the islands, especially St. Thomas, experienced a real estate boom, and much of the island's natural terrain was converted into shopping malls and condo complexes. Today, protecting the environment -- and curbing overdevelopment -- has become a primary concern in the Virgin Islands. The B.V.I., for example, has done more than the U.S.V.I., adding 10 new parks, including the Anegada Nature Reserve, to its existing national park system, which includes the Gorda Peak National Park and the Devil's Bay National Park on Virgin Gorda and the Sage Mountain National Park on Tortola. St. John, the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is the most protected landmass in the Caribbean, with some 60% of its acreage directly controlled by the U.S. National Park Service.
On the other hand, St. Thomas has been so overly developed that a battle is going on over the future of the 360 acres surrounding Botany Bay, on the western end of St. Thomas, long a refuge from the bustle of Charlotte Amalie, the capital. Locals claim this controversy over Botany Bay may not be settled before 2020, if then.
The area is a final refuge for deer and a nesting ground for sea turtles, with some of the healthiest coral reefs around St. Thomas. Some developers want to turn this pristine area into a resort complex with hotel rooms, timeshare apartments, and condos. The island is more than $1 billion in debt -- and it needs the cash that development could bring. Caroline Brown, of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas, has issued a dire warning that islanders may find themselves "living in a concrete jungle." Because protection of the environment is at issue here, this is a hot-button political topic, and much of the future of the islands is riding on what the eventual plan will be for Botany Bay.
A 51st State?
U.S. Virgin Islanders are not allowed to vote in national elections, a sore spot among some of the local residents. Many hope to see another star added to the American flag in the near future, but others prefer not to rock the boat.
When the 1936 Organic Act of the Virgin Islands was passed under the Roosevelt administration, residents ages 21 and over were granted suffrage and could elect two municipal councils and a legislative assembly for the islands. In 1946, the first black governor of the islands, William Hastie, was appointed. By 1970, the U.S. Virgin Islanders had the right to elect their own governor and lieutenant governor.
Today, the U.S. Virgin Islands remain an unincorporated territory administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Politically speaking, the Virgin Islands, like Puerto Rico, remain outside the family of the United States. They are only permitted to send a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Some islanders are beginning to demand more representation. They feel that only full statehood will provide the respect, power, and influence needed to turn the islands into more than just a "colony." But as of yet, it seems unlikely. The question of statehood is raised at each new election of Congress or of a president, but progress in this direction moves sluggishly along, if at all.
Roll the Dice
In 1996, U.S. senators agreed to allow the opening of gambling casinos in the U.S. Virgin Islands, granting permission for the building of two casino hotels on St. Croix. In a bow to the islanders, senators agreed that majority ownership of the casino hotels will be reserved for locals. The arrival of gambling conflicts with the desire of many islanders to preserve the scenic beauty of their land. Nonetheless, the gambling wheels are spinning at St. Croix's Divi Carina Bay Casino. The establishment of a second casino on St. Croix was approved at a building site in Robin Bay several years ago, but ground has not been broken yet as of 2011. Local governments are struggling to balance the preservation of the islands' number-one resource -- scenic beauty -- with modern economic realities.