Below is the speech of Prime Minister William Marlin at the 21st Annual International African-American Hotel ownership and investment summit and trade show. This event was organized by the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD)
Honorable Mr. Andy Ingraham,
Founder, President and CEO of the National Association
Of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers,
Mr. Ken Fearn,
Chairman of NABHOOD,
Ladies and gentlemen.
I bring you greetings from the Friendly Island of St. Maarten. It is, indeed, a great honor for me to address you at this 21st Annual International African American Hotel Ownership & Investment Summit & Trade Show. The timing of this Summit could not have been more appropriate as it comes on the heels of the UN High Level Political Forum held just last week in New York where I represented the Kingdom of the Netherlands and made a presentation on our Voluntary National Review to the United Nations regarding the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda, an agenda which St. Maarten embraces wholeheartedly. I stated at that meeting that the key to success in attaining the SDGs lies in our willingness to form partnerships at the national, regional and international levels. It is that partnership that I am, in part, here to seek today.
As some of you may know, St. Maarten is a 37 square mile slice of Caribbean Paradise which is divided between the Republic of France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. I am Prime Minister of the southern part, a territory of 16 square miles, which became an autonomous country within the Dutch Kingdom on October 10, 2010. This means, in effect, that since that date, the Dutch Kingdom is responsible only for defense and foreign affairs while St. Maarten is in charge of the rest of its own affairs.
On the other hand, the northern half is an Overseas Territorial Collectivity of the Republic of France and is thus an integral part of that European country. There are no physical borders on the island and we have enjoyed free movement of persons, goods and services since 1648, centuries before the European Union came into being based on the same principles.
Tourism is the main pillar of our economy, some would even say, the only pillar, accounting for over 80 percent of all economic activity. Our airport, Princess Juliana International Airport, which was named Caribbean Airport of the Year 2016, recorded a passenger grand total of 1,795,117 passengers in 2014 and St. Maarten had the third highest number of USA resident tourists out of a recent CTO sampling of destinations of similar size and nature. We are also second in the Caribbean in General Aviation and in fact, we will be breaking ground in two weeks’ time for the construction of a brand new Fixed Based Operations (FBO) building that will cater to the growing General Aviation sector, offering world class communications and amenities.
Similarly, we are a leading cruise tourism destination with over 2 million cruise passengers yearly. These figures become rather significant when we consider that the estimated population of the island is a mere 60,000 inhabitants in the south and another 55,000 in the north.
Considering our geographic size and that of our human and material resources, sustainable tourism development is not a convenient political slogan for us, but an imperative for our very economic survival. It is the route we have taken as a government to provide for our people in a meaningful manner.
Sustainability, for us means that we have to keep improving the quality of life for all our citizens while functioning under the core principles of open government, integrity, accountability, transparency, sustainable development, social equality, cohesion and inclusion. All of these constitute the foundation of the governing program of the coalition government I head for the period 2016-2020.
Through prudent and innovative use of the limited resources at our disposal, we have embarked on a four-year plan that is based on five strategic objectives. These include socio-economic and environmental sustainability, enhanced quality of life and sound financial management. None of these objectives would be attainable without sustained direct foreign investment, particularly in the hotel and hospitality sector.
This is where you come in. I have taken note that among your membership are some highly placed executives of international brand name hotels and have had the privilege to meet and speak to several of you these past days. I would like to invite all of you to come to St. Maarten and let’s do business.
We have had a long-standing relationship with the United States. Our airport began as an airstrip for US reconnaissance planes during World War II. And as a matter of fact, it is direct U.S. investment in our island that jump-started our tourism industry with the establishment of Mullet Bay Resort in the early Seventies. Needless to say that the island has a peculiar attraction that goes beyond its 37 white sand beaches, which made the likes of Harry Belafonte to set up summer homes there.
But while the US remains by far our largest tourism market, the amount of direct US investment on the island would seem to have been tapering off.
According to the latest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Report of the Financial Times, FDI into Latin America and the Caribbean by capital investment increased by 2% in 2016, to a total of $71.8bn. There was a 5% increase in the number of FDI projects, while the number of jobs created by FDI projects also increased by 4%.
For St. Maarten, the IMF Country Report of 2016 indicated that FDI as a percentage of GDP stood at 2.6, while real GDP per capita was a whopping US$26,025. This is higher than the real GDP per capita of Jamaica and Barbados put together. It is also higher than those of the Bahamas, Curacao and St. Kitts/Nevis.
In other words, by this metric, St. Maarten belongs to the high-income country level, which disqualifies us from seeking IMF loans. The country however has a Baa1 rating by Moody’s with stable outlook. But truth be told, our economy grew only by a very modest 0.5 percent in 2015, down from the 1.5 percent it posted in 2014. The IMF forecast a 0.7 expansion in St. Maarten’s GDP in 2016 as reflected in an increase in stay-over tourist arrivals and added that “over the medium term, growth is expected to pick up moderately to 1.3 percent.”
I highlight all of these to show that there is no better time than now for you to invest in St. Maarten. My government is committed to boosting and diversifying our economy through various initiatives, with the focus on creating a very attractive and competitive investment climate that sees business development and job creation as two sides of the same coin. Our aim is to change the seasonality of the tourism industry into a year-round enterprise.
Why St. Maarten, you may ask again?
I can list a dozen good reasons why you should bet on us, I mean, actually BANK on us.
In no particular order of importance, here they are:
- The whole island is duty-free. This means you can bring in equipment, materials, and whatever you may need to set up shop without paying ANY import duty.
- You can freely repatriate your profits, after of course, paying the relevant taxes.
- When you establish your hotel, you are eligible for up to a 10-year tax holiday
- Our labor laws are quite flexible and we are currently reviewing them to bring them in line with modern day requirements. Suffice it to say that we have an effective public-private sector partnership which has made labor unrest almost non-existent.
- We have a stable and autonomous government that is business-friendly and focused on economic development for the benefit of the people.
- While English and Dutch are the official languages, English is the mother tongue of most St. Maarteners, while from the bell boy to the hotel manager, from the market woman to the university professor are all multi-lingual, speaking English, Spanish, French as well as Dutch with varying proficiency.
- We are a major hub for the North-eastern Caribbean, with our airport, which was named Caribbean Airport of the Year 2016, serving seven other neighboring destinations including St. Barths, Anguilla, Nevis and Tortola. Our airport is serviced by the major US legacy airlines with daily flights to major US cities, including, New York, Atlanta, Miami and Charlotte.
- Currently we are finalizing negotiations to establish US Immigration and Customs Pre-clearance at our airport which will further enhance our hub function. As a matter of fact, I just returned from Washington a few days ago at the head of the St. Maarten delegation that went to continue talks with US authorities regarding this project.
- We are not new to the hospitality business. In fact, tourism has been the mainstay of our economy for over six decades now. That is over 60 years of experience that other destinations are now learning from.
- Maarten is the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. We have 15 casinos; that is almost one casino per square mile, including stand alone casinos! Of course, hotels and casinos go hand in glove and properties that have more than 200 rooms can be eligible for a casino license. Did I mention also that we are known as the Shopping mecca of the region and the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean with over 300 restaurants offering every kind of menu you can think of?
- We are the leading cruise destination in the region, with all the major cruise lines and the largest cruise ships in the world calling regularly at our port.
- Above all, we are called the Friendly Island for good reason. Our people are not only friendly but also proud of their heritage. We are the only territory in the Kingdom of the Netherlands where Emancipation Day, July 1st is an official public holiday. We are also a microcosm of the Caribbean with a vibrant cosmopolitan culture.
Of course, I could go on and on, but as they say, the taste of the pudding is in the eating. I want to therefore personally invite you to visit St. Maarten and see for yourselves why it is the best place you can invest in in the Caribbean right now. I can assure you that you will find a very welcoming people and a government that is eager to partner with you in a win-win venture.
May I once more thank you for this opportunity and wish you a very successful summit and trade show. St. Maarten would definitely love to welcome you to hold the next edition of this important gathering on our island. We have the experience and the capability to do so, having hosted other similar African-American organizations such as the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and the National Conference of Black Lawyers (NCBL) in the past. It would therefore be a pleasure to see all of you in St. Maarten next year for your 22nd Summit.
I thank you.