Opinion: Paying lip service

POSTED: 07/27/15 7:30 PM

What is most amazing about the never-ending procession of court cases the new owner of the former Caravanserai Resort, Alegria, gets involved in, is the lack of response to this very detrimental situation from the government, and in particular from Tourism and Economic Affairs Minister Claret Connor, with the parliament closely on his heels.

Whatever the outcome of the court case may be, the effect on our tourism industry will be devastating. Apparently, this is no reason for alarm, otherwise we would have seen more decisive action.

As things stand now, the timeshare owners are on the outside looking in. they bought timeshare from Endless Vacation, a subsidiary of Kildare Properties, the previous owner of the Caravanserai Resort – now Alegria. Endless did business under the name Caravanserai. We don’t know how these contracts were presented to the buyers, but we bet our bottom dollar that all of them were under the impression that they were doing business with  a resort called Caravanserai. Somebody very cleverly pulled the wool over their eyes and nobody would have been the wiser, had Kildare not gone bankrupt – at least, had the company not been unable to service its debt to the bank.

So then the resort went under the hammer in August last year and it ended up in the hands of Ray Sidhom and, soon after, Alegria Real Estate. The company bought the bricks and mortar and the right to long lease, but it did not buy Endless Vacation. Therefore (the court ruled in November of last year) Alegria does not have to respect the rights of the timeshare owners.

Endless Vacation was not a part of the auction, and the timeshare owners soon ended up with a very ugly letter from Alegria. It told them that their timeshare contracts were now worthless but that Alegria, from the goodness of its heart, offered them the use of a hotel room on two conditions: that they give up their timeshare rights and that they pay maintenance fees.

The timeshare owners, some of them long time visitors at Caravanserai, and all of them with an investment of thousands upon thousands of dollars in the project, were not amused. That is why they went to court last year – and lost. Whether they are going to find relief this time – with a different judge on the bench – remains to be seen.

These legal procedures are just one facet of this ugly mess. Robbing timeshare owners of their rights feels with good reason like robbery at the high seas. We are in the Caribbean after all, and the perception that pirates are alive and kicking here got a boost from Alegria’s maneuvers – we’ll leave aside here whether the company is legally within its rights or not.

What really matters is the effect this situation has on St. Maarten’s image as a tourist destination. What matters even more is that in particular American tourists will soon have a handy alternative on their doorstep when Cuba opens up. It is already happening.

A government that is truly interested in protecting its tourism industry would have jumped into action a long time ago. Not in St. Maarten. On the contrary, it seems that timeshare owners are not important at all.

A typical example to substantiate this observation is the behavior of the former Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs, Ted Richardson. He took the initiative for a meeting with Alegria in October of last year but, according to Jim Rosen, first vice president of the St. Maarten Timeshare Association, the minister hardly said a word during the meeting and he left without seeing the press release Alegria was about to send to the media.

Rosen came to our office afterwards and crumpled the press release to express his disgust. The press release, written by Alegria, appeared under the headline “Government achieves positive results for timeshare owners” while in reality, the government did not achieve anything at all. Adding insult to injury, the press release claimed that Minister Richardson, who achieved nothing at all during his tenure in St. Maarten, had played “a pivotal role in finding common ground between parties.”

The release even quoted Richardson as saying that parties had created a win-win situation, whereas the ‘solution’ was merely a repeat of the letter Alegria had sent to the disgruntled timeshare owners.

These timeshare owners are important to St. Maarten’s economy, but if one went by the disinterested attitude of politicians, one would get the impression that they do not matter at all.

Based on results, the government prefers paying lip service to powerful investors like Ray Sidhom before doing anything for the timeshare owners – who are not exactly penniless American citizens themselves.

So what does the government really want? Based on results, it has no interest whatsoever in protecting the rights of timeshare owners. Hundreds of them have left St. Maarten, never to come back. In the meantime the government parades numbers from the cruise industry as if everything is fine and dandy in the local economy.

Of course, it is not. So we have to start thinking that there is a darker motive here – one that we do not see yet, but that will come out of the wood work sooner or later.

To visitors who still even think about buying timeshare in St. Maarten our best advice would be under the current conditions: don’t ever do it. You’re better off giving you money to a charitable organization, throwing it out of the plane en route to the Friendly Island, or giving it to this newspaper. At least, we’ll stand up for you.

Our second best advice: look into the possibility of buying a part time right of apartment. That way you won’t buy hot air, but a real piece of real estate that nobody is able to take away from you on a day you’re not paying attention.

Another piece of advice for our government and our parliament: show your colors and tell timeshare owners what your real interests are. If you are really working on timeshare legislation, give people an update. And while you’re working on it, don’t forget to ask for the input of the people who matter most to our local economy – and by extension to the livelihood of the average St. Maartener – the timeshare owners.

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