In a two hour introduction session, new Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport & Telecommunication (TEATT) Minister Leo Lambriex and his cabinet met with 8 board representatives of the St. Maarten Hospitality & Trade Association (SHTA). The Minister laid out his immediate plans for improving the look and feel of the visitor experience and action points for his tenure and took note of the priorities of the private sector.
Minister Lambriex shared his goal, to focus on existing qualities of the tourism dependent destination and fixing what is easy to improve without major capital investments. The Minister made clear that in the competitive tourism market, it is of great importance that attention is paid to upkeep and beauty of the tourism product. “St. Maarten needs to make sure eye for detail is maintained to offer a great holiday experience to its many visitors. An attractive product is what makes people come back; an unattractive product makes people choose another destination for their next holiday”. The Minister, having operated tour companies himself, cited from his own experience how central the level of cleanliness and order is to visitors. Recently, the Minister launched improvement ideas for the Philipsburg area.
The association agreeing wholeheartedly with his convictions pertaining to beautification, the Minister discussed how the Ministry and SHTA could collaborate on projects pertaining to destination beautification. The SHTA added that the currently often congested traffic situation, with only 84% of the 2016 room count having returned to the market, is an additional variable influencing the image of the destination.
Within the same context of choosing improvement over expansion of the tourism product, SHTA shared various economic indicators with the Minister, showing effort is still needed to bring the destination back to the 2016 situation.
Occupancy for December 2022 was 2% under that of December 2021. Though January yielded better results, the association has concerns about the traditionally low summer occupancy given the unexpectedly low December occupancy. The private sector sees more government investment in destination marketing as an essential for economic growth. Though SHTA supports diversification, reality has it that the economy is over 80% dependent on tourism. At the same time, available funds to promote the destination per hotel room are not even 40% that of French side St. Martin, Aruba or Curacao. SHTA estimates that every dollar invested in marketing returns fivefold to government coffers via, amongst others, room tax, timeshare tax and turnover tax, making destination marketing a priority for all.
SHTA repeated its well-known plea for swift implementation of a St. Maarten Tourism Authority (STA), modeled after the very successful institute on Aruba and a project of which various of Minister Lambriex’s predecessors were in support of. The Aruban Tourism Authority does not just contribute year round to high occupancy rates and hence income for private sector and government, but also to beautification projects. Knowing the island well due to visits to relatives on Aruba, Minister Lambriex also cited other best practices of this island that could be applied on St. Maarten.
Other topics discussed were increased government income via collection of AirBnB fees and the need for a dedicated team to implement this action, Expedia Campaigns, the worrisome state of the (real) Gross Domestic Product or GDP, private sector representation in the Socio-Economic Council (SER), implementation of the ED Card program, private sector taxation, geographical information about St. Maarten visitors and upcoming SHTA plans.
The Minister, the cabinet and the SHTA jointly stated their intent to explore increasing cooperation over the upcoming months.