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Purpose in Paradise: Voluntourism Program Helps U.S. Virgin Islands Rebuild

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Courtesy Purpose in Paradise
Students from Howard University on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands this year with one of the library booths they built for local children in lieu of hurricane-damaged libraries in the U.S. Caribbean territory.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are finally rebounding after suffering two major hurricanes back-to-back. One tourism innovation may have played a part in that.

In 2017, Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands within just two weeks. Tourism represents almost a third of the U.S. Caribbean territory’s GDP – and it was demolished.

But at the Caribbean Hotel and Resort Investment Summit (CHRIS Conference) in Miami Beach this week, Governor Albert Bryan Jr. said three-fourths of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ tourism industry has bounced back. And he said a new government-run volunteer tourism program – Purpose in Paradise – is part of the reason.

“We’re constantly bombarded with people who want to help [rebuild the islands] – but don’t have a medium or way in to help," Bryan said. "So we created a program that could actually have a point person that would steer people in the proper directions.”

Volunteer tourism – or voluntourism – lets visitors take part in disaster recovery or community development projects. It’s globally popular – but loosely organized. The U.S. Virgin Islands may have been the first government entity to harness it when it launched Purpose in Paradise last year.

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Credit Bevan Springer
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan Jr. (left) and tourism commissioner-designee Joseph Boschulte at the CHRIS Conference in Miami Beach this week.

Since then more voluntourists have visited the Virgin Islands – and spent more badly needed tourist dollars – as the territory gets rebuilt. Tourism commissioner-designee Joseph Boschulte said more recovery efforts like house and building reconstruction were aided. The program has also connected groups like college students with local NGOs and corporate partners, such as airlines and especially cruise lines.

“University students that say, hey, we want to come in and do some community service – we figure out the best use of the time for whoever’s coming in to do the projects," Boschulte said. "Howard University, for example, sent some students, and they specifically came in to assist with the projects that were identified.”

Bryan said it's also a long-term investment. He points out those same voluntourists often want to come back to the islands – but as visitors paying for more expensive hotel rooms, restaurants and recreation.