Veteran Ferron bemoans lack of understanding for marine industry

POSTED: 06/12/13 4:43 PM
Antigua takes the big white boats seriously

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista –The local government simply has a “lack of understanding” of the marine industry as a whole says veteran yachtsman Robbie Ferron. The industry comprises at least 15% of the island’s total GDP, with vast potential to expand. Yet for an industry that big, St. Maarten still does not have a comprehensive policy framework in place for the sector. It could do well by creating an official advisory role on this “complex industry” to bridge the knowledge gap between government and the marine trades, he added, just as islands like Antigua and St. Lucia have, for example. Ferron is not alone in this sentiment. “Antigua and other islands have a presence at the two major boat shows in Europe; St. Maarten has none,” says James Roidis, who’s worked in the marina industry for over 14 years and whose company manages the marina at Porto Cupecoy. “The promotion of St. Maarten at these shows is solely on the initiative of the private sector”.

Indeed, St. Maarten’s yachting sector was slowly built up over the years largely through private initiative, by groups like the SMMTA and good old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit. St. Maarten’s natural and structural advantages also played an important role, such as its protected lagoon, comparatively relaxed immigration and customs laws, its duty free status, and, for the mega yachts, its close proximity to the lucrative charter destinations of St. Barths and Anguilla.

St. Maarten used to host an annual yacht charter show with the ultimate goal of benefitting the entire marine sector directly, and the island indirectly. Aside from receiving some financial support from the government one year, the St. Maarten yacht charter show was largely left to fend for itself; however, lackluster attendance and financial issues in 2009 finally forced an end to the island’s brief flirtation with the idea. The global recession and the fact that the St. Maarten show’s dates overlapped and competed with archrival Antigua’s charter show didn’t help either.

By contrast, the Antiguan government takes the big white boats seriously and supports the annual event with a generous subsidy. The Antigua Yacht Charter Show is now the largest of its kind in the world. For over 50 years, it has attracted many of the world’s best charter companies and its most luxurious yachts. The economic spin off effects from the presence of these floating works of art and the thousands of attendees that flock to see them during the event is an enormous boon to the Antiguan economy overall. It even proudly advertises the show on the government’s official website.

But this support isn’t merely restricted to the big, champagne filled yachts. The Antiguan government has an integrated working relationship with the entire industry, whether yachts on charter or recurring regatta events. “The increased investment of the AHTA and the closer co-operation with the Ministry of Tourism and the Tourism Authority is beginning to pay dividends. In difficult times the ministry has shown a real understanding of the yachting industry and the benefits it provides to the Antiguan economy and has played a vital role in injecting renewed confidence into the Antiguan yachting experience to our overseas guests,” says Alison Sly-Adams, head of marketing at Antigua Sailing Week. With their yachting industry in mind, the government installed an island wide 4G LTE network last year, no small commitment by any standard. Along with the Antiguan government, it also involved “significant investment from Digicel”, writes the Super Yacht News website, providing “yachts with faster broadband than almost anywhere else on earth!” Digicel is the Antiguan equivalent to Telcell. Now any yacht or boat staying in Antigua, regardless of size, has access to the latest and fastest broadband technology, bypassing the need for costly VSATs which only the largest yachts could afford to use.

Nevertheless, and despite a strong strategic partnership with the public sector, St. Maarten’s yachting industry, from the famous Heineken regatta to the spectacular display of chic yachts in the lagoon, remains healthy. If it wants to one day revive its own yacht charter show and become a star athlete, however, it will need help from its friends in government.

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