St. Maarten retailers brace for 30,000 plus cruise ship visitors today

POSTED: 12/18/13 11:54 AM

St. Maarten – Philipsburg, and indeed the entire island, is bracing itself today for the arrival of an unprecedented 9 cruise ships – 8 large vessels and 1 smaller – at the A C Wathey Cruise and Cargo Facilities. This is the highest number of cruise ships the island has seen in at least a decade. But retailers on both Front Street and Back street had mixed views on the impeding temporary population boom. More is not always better for some.

“I don’t think it’s going to help,” said one Back Street clothing retailer yesterday of the record number of ships. In his experience, over 25 years on the island, 8 large ships at the port will be “like shopping at a mall in the US on Christmas Eve, a lot of shoving and pushing” as consumers descend on stores. “Taxi drivers,” he said, however, “will do well,” as they pick up passengers and take them for a tour of the island or to the beaches.

He said that the US has a lot of deals still going on this year, and American consumers have so much choice when they go back that they may not be enough incentive to shop here, duty free or not. And he also has doubts about how much the island can bear all at once. “Our infrastructure won’t be able to handle it.” If, in fact, the estimates are true, and that approximately 32,000 people arrive on the island at once, it would be like nearly doubling the population of the Dutch side in 24 hours, no doubt a daunting challenge for any country.

His entire family will be in the store, he pointed out in anticipation. “If it gets too crowded,” he said, “I will shut the gates.”

A Front Street merchant specializing in jewelry and high end watches said there will be no extra staff, but he’s “hoping for the best.” He said it will probably be “overwhelming” so he was “going to get a good night’s rest.”

“Our inventory is fully stocked,” he assured. “We have a full arsenal.” At times it can be “counterproductive” to have so many ships in town at once, “but you hope to give your best.”

Of the consumer preferences, he said that although the general trend in luxury good was shifting more and more toward high end watches, “diamonds are still going super strong.”

American consumer confidence, he said, had picked up since the great crash of 2008. “Stay over tourists,” he described, though, “tend to be better consumers, with more spending power than cruise passengers.”

“They don’t shop when it’s crowded,” said an employee of a perfume store. “Because it’s if they don’t get the attention, they might leave the store.” She echoed the sentiments of the Front Street businessman. They’re “hoping for the best.”

She said that there will be more locals, because it’s close to Christmas. And she felt that businesses on the Boardwalk will do well, especially restaurants.

“I think it’s gonna be confusion,” said a restaurant manager on the Boardwalk. “A lot will go back” to the ships to avoid the hustle and bustle of the crowds, and eat there.

Another restaurateur, however, said that “we’re used to volume on busy days. But we compete with free food,” referring to the fact that cruise passengers have meals included with the price of their cruise. “But people will eat.”

He said that in order to compete they have to “sell the experience, and provide an ambience that can’t be had on cruise ship.” He felt that overall security on the Boardwalk was good. Of course there are the occasional petty thefts, but that comes with the territory of having over 1.6 million people visit every year.

The feeling that came from those interviewed was one of both hoping for the best mixed with the skepticism of realistically handling that many people at once while still providing quality service.

Philipsburg, and St. Maarten, braces itself today.

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