Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Mellissa Arrindell-Doncher on Tuesday stressed that the economic recovery and development of St. Maarten must be sustainable and based on collaborative initiatives and policies between the public and private sector. “We also have to be daring and step out of comfort zones that do not work for us anymore,” she said.
She said if a better, stronger, smarter and more sustainable St. Maarten is to arise out of the devastation of Hurricane Irma, focus must be placed on several key areas. She said the Department of Economy, Transportation and Telecommunication (ETT) under Ministry TEATT, with input from the private sector, is spearheading an economic recovery plan, a working document, that will require cooperation from all sectors. Recommendations outlined in the interim National Recovery Plan (NRP) are also being taken into account.
She said focus is being placed on the speedy recovery of businesses and critical infrastructure (airport, harbor, hotels) and measures must be initiated to accommodate new entrants to the business community (such as via Qredits), a new tourism master/marketing plan must be developed, consideration for economic diversification through renewable energy and fiscal and social measures must be enacted to grow and boost economy, while at the same time catering to the vulnerable.
“Unfortunately structured recovery also requires governing stability. The recent upheaval in government brought on by the new coalition does not help St. Maarten after Irma, it set us back because we are delayed severely and will be at least until a few months into this year before concrete decisions can be made,” the Minister said.
“Plans for sound economic recovery do not materialize overnight. It takes time. We were well on our way and could have been much further along. Many of these plans were also outlined in the governing plans of the party I represent (USP). Nevertheless, despite more political instability, we still have to look to the future of St. Maarten and do what we must to facilitate quick recovery,” she added.
The Minister said the magnitude of economic devastation that government faces requires serious medium to long-term initiatives. All fiscal policies must be reviewed, including the ToT along with possible a reduction of wage tax and profit tax (which helps the business sector in its recovery). She said loss in revenue can be recuperated by the possible implementation of a value added tax for retailers, exempting wholesalers, applying import duties on certain commodities and implement proper and effective collection measures.
The Minister said among the many options being looked at for business stimulation is incentivizing the continuity of business operation in the first place. Such incentives could include temporarily reducing GEBE’s fuel clause for a defined period which reduces the operational costs for business and increases household disposable income. Also suggested is reducing the licensing fees for existing businesses with certain pre-requisites and establish the St. Maarten Business Development Center with additional responsibility of focusing on business recovery.
ETT is also exploring setting up of a Business Recovery fund for uninsured businesses with up to date license payment and self-employed businesses (Taxi, Vendors, Buses). Proof of insurance would be necessary going forward in such a scenario. The plan would also seek reduction in the rate of interest at banks for both household and businesses for a defined period. This would stimulate businesses, existing and new, expedite housing recovery and put eligible persons in a position to obtain mortgages at lower interest rates.
Minister Arrindell-Doncher also is for the establishment of an Investment Promotion Agency which creates an investors one-stop shop that highlights incentives and awareness to investors of the opportunities that exist when investing in St. Maarten. This agency would facilitate the promotion of the plans and action of the National Development Plan and other areas and sectors identified for investment opportunities. These include the marine sector, light manufacturing initiatives, the financial service sector, wholesale and retail, ect.
The business community is also concerned about safety and security. As such the Minister is pushing for proper security in commercial areas including the re-installation of proper street lighting (St. Maarten is too dark she said), increased police presence, implement the camera surveillance project and make more use of the K-9 units. The Council of Ministers has already approved a new electronic boom system for Philipsburg to control traffic movement during peak tourist activity periods in Philipsburg.
“A vibrant hospitality industry is important for our people in terms of employment but we also have to be able to create jobs through specific and new methods,” the Minister said. “People care about feeding their family and it behooves government to be creative and think outside of the box when it comes to creating employment,” she added.
To that end, the Minister said specific training has to be design and implemented via collaborative partnerships with local businesses, the labor department and training institutions, targeting specific industries/sectors such as construction for current needs of the market and hospitality – culinary arts, local arts and crafts and agriculture to supplement tourism and export our product.
“To support these small to medium enterprises, we have to collaborate with the hospitality/hotel sector to create a guaranteed market for these product producers. This means permanent jobs will be created because producers will have a guaranteed market to sell their products to and it will stimulate what we call the productive sector,” the Minister said
Also proposed is targeting the renewable energy sectors by collaborating with international bodies willing to use the island as pilot project towards renewable energy production. These include, but are not limited to, Disposable Waste Management – Garbage separation, Waste to Energy (W2E), installation of a recycling plant, solar panel/wind energy.
The Minister said the development of a new tourism master plan goes hand-in-hand with the activities of the recently established St. Maarten Tourism Authority (STA). Hurricane Irma, she said, gave tourism sector partners and government the opportunity to re-invent the destination in terms of marketing and promotion.
In this regard, having an STA, the Minister said, is already a step in the right direction since it is a body that will eventually handle all marketing and promotion of the destination, eliminating government red tape.
Once the destination is ready and the product is on a stable road to recovery, she said, a massive marketing campaign must be rolled out, re-imagined and complete with re-branding. “We must also get serious about the amount of funds we commit to marketing St. Maarten once and for all,” the Minister concluded.
The marketing campaign will include the marine sector, festival and events such as Carnival and the Heineken Regatta to strengthen event/festival based tourism. She said government must also be prepared to support the marine sector in its efforts to have St. Maarten represented at boat shows and other such events that can drive this lucrative market to the destination.