UP-leader Theo Heyliger talks cruise tourism “Damage will take years to repair”

POSTED: 11/13/12 12:58 PM

St. Maarten – “The damage these guys are going to do will take years to repair,” United People’s party-leader Theo Heyliger said last week in a TV-broadcast of Oral Gibbes Live. Heyliger was referring to the government’s decision to pull the plug on the Rainforest Adventures Park and to buy the Emilio Wilson Estate instead for $17 million. Heyliger foresees a negative effect on the island’s cruise tourism.

“Let’s rewind and go back to 1995, when I was just elected,” Heyliger said. “Cruise tourism to the island was somewhere in the range of 400,000 passengers. We used to have strikes every year from taxi-drivers. They had small vehicles that could carry maybe four of five people. Now they all have vans, Front Street is redone and the taxi drivers are doing well. You don’t have strikes every year anymore and there is a reason for that.”

The UP-leader said that in the mid-nineties the beach in Philipsburg was filled with septic tanks. “Now we have restaurants. There has been a concerted effort focused on the cruise industry. Today we have 1.6 million passengers. We have six berths, probably the largest in the Eastern Caribbean. We have partnered with Carnival – the owner of eleven other brands – and with Royal Caribbean.”

Talking with the cruise lines gave Heyliger the information he needed. “They built this very big ship and that’s why we built the new piers. Today we have one of those ships every week, and 6,000 passengers come off them.”

Other Caribbean islands are just starting to build piers, Heyliger added. “Only now they are thinking about a strategy. But they have all gotten smart because they have been watching what we have been doing in St. Maarten.”

In his contacts with Carnival Cruise Lines the subject of creating more attractions came up. “They told me, Theo, Jamaica has built this world class tour – I think it’s called the Jamaican bobsled tour – and a Bob Marley museum. All in a location from where they’re able to oversee the port. They said: We have invested almost $35 million in St. Maarten, and we want to develop more tours here.”

That’s understandable, Heyliger said. “A ship that leaves Miami for the port of St. Maarten spends half a million in fuel alone. The ships don’t come here because of the beach, or our friendly faces or our shopping. They want to make money and tours are one way of making money.”

The cruise company set up a team that scouted four of five different locations in St. Maarten. “They like the Emilio Wilson Estate. I said: you picked the most problematic site, but also the most historical one.”

And so the plan took shape for the Rainforest Adventures Park – a project with a ski lift going up to the top of the mountain and a zip line for daredevils to get back down. “That plan did not destroy anything on the ground, except from the place where the poles are for the lift,” Heyliger said. “And 99 percent of our people have never been to the top of that mountain. The idea was also to put in a zip line – from the top straight to the bottom. At 50 miles per hour, you’d be flying like Superman through the air. They were going to call it The Flying Dutchman.”

Part of the deal was that the cruise line would invest approximately $12 million in refurbishing Emilio Wilson’s house and other structures on the property.

\“From every visitor they would donate $2 to the upkeep of the Emilio Wilson Park – that’s between $200,000 and $300,000 a year. Fifty percent of the park would remain completely untouched, and only 3 percent would be built on.”

Heyliger said that half the park would be bought for $6 million, and that the other half was estimated to be worth $4 million. “Now the new government comes in, it gets these plans out of the way and says: we’re buying the estate for $17 million, and 25 percent of the estate remains for building homes. How can a plan like this go from $10 to $17 million? Nobody questions where those $7 million are going.”

Heyliger maintains that the adventure park with all its ramifications would have been beneficial for St. Maarten. “It would have brought more cruise passengers, and it would have given our own people access to a world class park. They would have something to do on the weekends and during the summer vacation. And the project would give back towards the upkeep of the park. Taxi drivers would have had more work too, but the project is thrown out because Theo was involved in negotiating a good deal for the island.”

The UP-leader seemed still baffled about the turn of events. “Carnival was going to invest $12 million in the project. A project of $10 million versus one of $17 million, whereby the government will have to pay out in hard cash. That is a big difference.”

Heyliger had a clear warning up his sleeve for the government. “It took me years to build the relationships with these cruise companies. The world is not standing still. Carnival is going to announce the construction of a port in the Dominican Republic – very close to St. Maarten – and Disney Cruise Lines is looking at Tortola. Royal Caribbean has announced a massive investment in Barbados, and St. Kitts is right on our heels. If we are going to fight the cruise lines because of politics – be my guest. But the damage these guys are going to do will take years to repair.”

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