St. John Tradewinds News

St. John Spearheads Inclusion Initiative For Lucrative Disabled, Elderly Market

As the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is generating some colossal ideas with the latest goal of becoming the first Caribbean destination to offer extensive facilities for persons with disabilities as well as the senior population – tapping into a market of more than 54 million Americans with a discretionary income of $175 billion.

As the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John is generating some colossal ideas with the latest goal of becoming the first Caribbean destination to offer extensive facilities for persons with disabilities as well as the senior population – tapping into a market of more than 54 million Americans with a discretionary income of $175 billion.
The idea was spearheaded by local environmentalist and eco-tourism leader Stanley Selengut, owner of Maho Bay Camps and Estate Concordia resorts.
Selengut sponsored a study by the Rhode Island School of Design during the summer of 2004 to advise ways that Estate Concordia and the island of St. John could capitalize on the market of travelers with disabilities and the elderly.
“There is a large, relatively untapped market out there of wealthy older people and persons with disabilities,” said Selengut at a panel discussion unveiling his initiative, “Build-ing a Destination for All 2005” on Friday, July 29, at Maho Bay Pavilion.
“This movement throughout the Virgin Islands could have an enormous benefit on our image throughout the world,” added Selengut, who pioneered the idea in collaboration with Multi, Design for People, LLC, based in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

St. John Beginnings

The inclusive initiative is beginning on St. John because it is the smallest in size and has the greatest economic stability of all three islands, according to design consultants from Multi, Design for People, LLC.
The goal is to work with V.I. government officials and eventually spill over to St. Thomas and St. Croix, making the U.S. Virgin Islands the first Caribbean destination to offer extensive facilities for accessible travel, according to the consultants.
Members of the V.I. government, local businesses, the V.I. National Park and supporters – as well as four travelers with disabilities who experienced the island for the past week – convened during a one-day panel discussion to brainstorm ideas and outline an action plan to develop St. John as an inclusive island destination.
There are 48.9 million Americans 5-years-old and older with disabilities, representing 19.2 percent of the U.S. population, according to Eric Lipp founder of Open Doors Organi-zation. Lipp’s goal is creating a society in which all persons with disabilities have the same consumer opportunities as those without.

USVI Is Top Destination

Four travelers with disabilities shared their vacation experiences on St. John at “Building a Destination for All 2005” on Friday, July 29.

American adults with disabilities make approximately 31.5 million trips and spend $13.6 billion per year, according to Lipp.
“If we build it, they will come,” said Lipp. “I am here to challenge all of you – be the first to go out there and do this.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands ranks seventh among the top destinations for disabled travelers, with New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas and Los Angeles ranking before it, according to a study Lipp presented.
Among the Caribbean destinations, the U.S. Virgin Islands already ranks first, followed by Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Jamaica and Aruba, respectively, said Lipp.
Selengut, founder of eco-resorts Maho Bay Camps and Estate Concordia, shared his personal story of how he was diagnosed with macular degeneration two years ago and is now considered legally blind, explaining how he has adapted his life with technology such as magnifying devices, talking computers and watches, and has also learned to rely on others, even though it meant giving up some of his independence.
“People with disabilities will do almost anything to lead a happy, fulfilling life,” said Selengut with personal affirmation.

Selengut’s Commitment

Stanley Selengut

Selengut said he is committed to building Estate Concordia as an inclusive resort destination for disabled persons and senior travellers, but he views the initiative as a larger movement.
“My one hope is that this doesn’t end here, it starts here,” said Selengut, adding that he even sees the Special Olympics being held on St. Croix.
Government officials, design consultants and people with disabilities spoke at the panel discussion. “Building a Destination for All 2005,” in support of the initiative.
St. John Administer Julien Harley was the first to speak at the panel discussion, sharing a personal story about his disabled 20-year-old son with those gathered under the Maho Bay Pavilion.
“For the past 20 years, we have had to do everything for him,” said Harley. “But I look at him as a blessing because somewhere down the line it has made me a different person.”
The St. John administrator said he is devoted to making St. John a destination for people with disabilities, and he thanked and credited Selengut as well as Kat Darula and Rosanne Ramos, the inclusive design consultants for Multi, Design for People, LLC, for their dream.
“Stanley, Kat, Rosanne, you started it on St. John but the government doesn’t want this to end on St. John – we want to take it to the other two islands,” said Harley. “You are the pioneers of something that is going to be very, very good for St. John and the Virgin Islands.”
Long Overdue for USVI
Pamela C. Richards, Commissioner of the USVI Department of Tourism, called the initiative “long overdue.”
“In the not very distant past, the clear, turquoise waters and white sands could only be admired from afar,” said Richards, adding that the disabled and senior market “has been overlooked and under-served” in the USVI.
There are an estimated 600 million people worldwide with disabilities, many of whom have both the financial resources and physical capability to travel, according to Richards.
“There are 54 million in the U.S., 39 million of which are already traveling,” said Richards.
“Now the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands can lay claim to transforming the USVI into an inclusive destination,” said Richards. “We are well aware that along with this accomplishment comes tremendous responsibility.”
The commissioner said the USVI is leading the Caribbean region in addressing this market.
“The whole point of this effort is to make sure people can vacation with dignity,” said Richards. “If there is no dignity, it is not worth their effort.”
A representative for Congresswoman Donna M. Christensen of the U.S. House of Representatives spoke on her behalf at the panel discussion, expressing the delegate’s support for the initiative.
“The delegate is very much for this endeavor and stands behind it 100 percent,” said Del. Christensen’s representative, acknowledging the timeliness of this week’s 15th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “While we celebrate its accomplishments, we realize there is still much to be done.”
VINP Improving Accessibility
Joe Kessler, president of Friends of the V.I. National Park and VINP Superinten-dent Art Frederick spoke about making areas within the park more accessible for people with disabilities.
“St. John is not an easy place to make accessible, but there are areas within the V.I. National Park that are,” said Kessler.
Cinnamon Bay beach, campground and amphitheater are located on one of the flattest areas on the island and the Francis Bay walking trail, which is known for bird watching, could both easily be made accessible, according to Kessler.
“I am willing to be an active partner in this venture,” said Supt. Frederick, adding that the park is entering the second phase of planning for the General Management Plan (GMP), a blueprint for guiding the park for the next 15 to 20 years, and would consider incorporating the inclusive action plan into the planning process.

VINP Can, Should Do More

The VINP superintendent said the National Park has presently only met the minimal requirements of the American With Disabilities Act (ADA).
“Yet we can and we should do more,” said Frederick.
Senate President Lorraine L. Berry spoke to pledge her support of the initiative, saying the potential to tap into a market of disabled travelers would be a large economic benefit to the USVI.
The local government and the V.I. National Park must work together to remove barriers and expand access throughout the territory, said the Senate President.

More Accessible Taxi Vans

Winston Parker, president of the USVI Taxi Association, pledged to make more of the vans accessible for disabled persons.
“In another 60 days to 90 days you will find more buses for you (disabled persons) than we have now,” Parker told those gathered at the panel discussion.
Multi, Design for People, LLC consultants said making the island inclusive would require the whole package – from airport travel, transportation, beach access and recreational activities to customer service, hotels and accommodations – becoming more accessible for people with disabilities.
“This initiative is only as good as its follow-through,” said Ramos.

Action Plan, Next Steps

Darula said Multi, Design for People, LLC will be meeting with the V.I. Taxi Association, ferry companies, the V.I. Port Authority and rental car companies to develop action plans and strategies, and the company’s goal is to hold a territory-wide conference one year from now in 2006.
The greatest challenge to the inclusive initiative will be securing funding to make it possible, according to Darula, Ramos and Selengut.
“I think the hardest thing to make this happen is getting the funding behind it,” said Selengut. “I do hope the funding can be found somewhere to expand this throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.”