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World Tourism Day Feature

EMIL_LEELee: Lack of consistency biggest bottleneck for St. Maarten tourism

The lack of consistency is one of the main issues plaguing St. Maarten’s tourism industry, says local hotelier and Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) president Emil Lee.

Lee, a former president of St. Maarten Hotel and Tourism Association (SHTA), told WEEKender that St. Maarten has had five different Tourism ministers in the past five years, each with different opinions, different priorities and different objectives.

“This is one of the main reasons for St. Maarten Tourism Authority (STA). STA would provide structure to public private cooperation and would provide consistency regardless of political turmoil,” Lee said. “This lack of consistency translates into an underperforming economy or lost tax revenues, lost jobs, lost security for the country.”

LEE’S INVITED comments come as the world prepares to celebrate World Tourism Day tomorrow, Sunday, September 27, under the theme: “One billion tourists, one billion opportunities.” This year, the emphasis is on highlighting the awareness of the global impact of tourism on the economies, the environments and the populations of the world.

Lee said as a result of a lack of consistency, St. Maarten's market strategy and effectiveness has been severely weakened. “People in charge of promoting St. Maarten are obviously frustrated and demoralised. St. Maarten needs a structured marketing plan and timely execution for the destination,” he noted.

ASKED HOW St. Maarten can sharpen its tourism product, Lee said: “Basically, I believe St. Maarten has a good product: Good diversity in accommodations such as timeshare, hotels, all-inclusives, villas and condos, as well as great restaurants and interesting activities. But St. Maarten really needs to improve its marketing activities. Due to poor marketing, the accommodations suffer. They end up discounting rates in order to generate business. On the long term, this is not sustainable.”

“Look at Aruba, its product is comparable to St. Maarten. Their Average Daily Rate (ADR) is better than ours. They have basically eliminated their low season. We still have big dips in occupancy. Again this translates into seasonal labour, lost jobs and lost opportunities.” He said tourism is important to the country’s economy because much of St. Maarten's economic activity is generated by tourism. “As tourism fails to perform, the island feels the impact in many ways such as lost jobs, less investment into St. Maarten and government without money to fund its social programmes like educational projects.”

Asked for his opinion on possible areas in which the economy can be diversified and why he thinks these areas will be feasible for St. Maarten, Lee said diversification can make the economy more resilient. “First of all, people need to realise there is a lot of possibility to diversify our tourism economy. Diversify by source market, diversify into different niches and diversify accommodation types. All of these tourism diversifications would make tourism more resilient and therefore a better provider for the people of St Maarten.

Then, of course, you can diversify into other industries, but this has challenges. For agriculture, land is expensive. In the area of manufacturing, with St. Maarten's wage structure, could St. Maarten compete with other counties with much lower labour costs?

For technology (we need to ask ourselves if) St Maarten has the appropriately skilled workforce to compete on the global market.”

Lee said in order for tourism to thrive, the people must be able to understand the connection between the performance of the tourism industry and their quality of life. “I am not saying we cannot diversify, but it has challenges. Probably we could develop some, but it will be hard to find one industry that will be able to compete with tourism in terms of income generation and employment generation.”

“Additionally, in my opinion, open government would have a huge impact on the success of the tourism industry: openness on marketing plans and how monies have been spent; openness on performance data and openness on job descriptions for political appointments and the qualification of people appointed to positions of importance and openness on procurement procedures.”

IN THE meantime in his World Tourism Day Message, Ernest Sams, new Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Telecommunication and Transportation said tourism is the pinnacle of the economy in St. Maarten. “It creates jobs; promotes sports, culture and the sustainable use of our marine environment. We can attest to the impact of tourism on our society as it is a valuable source of livelihood for a great percentage of our population.”

“As the number of cruise passengers grows and the number of stay-over guests increases, so will our economy grow. While we are proud of our tourism product, the ever-changing needs of the industry and increasing expectations of our visitors are forcing us to create more opportunities and better services for our guests. Our success will be determined by our ability to anticipate these changes and to put the necessary mechanisms in place, in order to meet and surpass our visitors’ expectations.”

SAMS THANKED residents, who have worked in whatever capacities to help showcase the country’s tourism product to the world: “Whether you have worked at our ports of entry, hotels, restaurants, stores, casinos or car rental businesses; or as a taxi driver or police officer or whatever area of this economy; you have either effected or been affected by this great phenomenon called tourism. I salute you all for your contributions to this industry.”

“So as we celebrate World Tourism Day, I challenge every stakeholder in this valuable industry to work together with me and my ministry, so that we can provide memorable lasting experiences for our guests. In so doing, we are proudly demonstrating our commitment and strong contribution to the transformative potential of one billion tourists.”

IN HIS MESSAGE, Hugh Riley, Secretary General and Chief Executive Officer of Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), said the emergence of the travel and tourism sector in the Caribbean coincided with a move away from complete reliance on agriculture as the primary money earner. The decline of bananas, sugar, bauxite, vanilla and other such revenue earners meant Caribbean countries needed another means to grow their economies and tourism was a natural fit.

“Whether it was for the curative benefits of sea bathing or the warm tropical temperatures or simply for pleasure, the Caribbean possessed all the attributes to become a successful tourism destination,” he said.

Last year, tourism contributed US $29.5 billion to Caribbean economies and this is expected to rise this year. He said this year’s theme is a perfect reminder to the Caribbean of the important impact tourism has on our countries and communities and the many opportunities to grow our tourism. “The over one billion people expected to travel internationally this year will challenge us to create experiences and memories that appeal to each individual, so not only will they come again; but they will also encourage their friends and families to visit. In essence, it’s one billion opportunities for the most effective advertising there is.”

LAST YEAR the region’s arrivals were up five per cent over 2013 and this year we expect another five per cent or so rise. “Our realistic goal is to break the 30-million barrier by the end of 2017. But it won’t be easy. A look at the major source markets reveals that the Caribbean faces competition from domestic tourism marketing in North America; challenging economic conditions in South and Latin America; and the strengthening of the US dollar against the euro, making it cheaper for Americans to visit Europe. At the same time, intra-regional airlift continues to be a major challenge.”

“Properly equipping our region’s future tourism practitioners is essential… It is fair to state that the quality of life enjoyed by many Caribbean territories, the sophisticated road networks, world-class healthcare, solid foreign reserves and complex educational systems are largely due to the success of the tourism industry. However, until the tourism sector gets serious about quantifying its true impact on our livelihood, we will not have the tools to properly enlighten our citizens and to move the sector to the top of the national and regional agendas,” he noted.

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