Workshop at FCCA conference: Theo Heyliger projects 2.2 million cruise passengers in 2015

POSTED: 10/8/14 1:34 PM

FCCA workshop

The speakers at the FCCA-workshop yesterday afternoon. From left: Michael Ronan, Michele Paige, Gerry Cahill, Giora Israel and Mark Mingo. Photo Today / Hilbert Haar

GREAT BAY – St. Maarten expects to receive 2.2 million cruise passengers in 2015, a huge jump from the 300,000 visitors the port received back in 1995. Formateur Theo Heyliger mentioned the projections during a workshop at the cruise conference that is currently taking place at the harbor.

In the afternoon, Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Ted Richardson cut the traditional ribbon together with Michele Paige, the president of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, and Bill Panoff of the American PPI Group, a marketing company specialized in the cruise industry.

The conference facility offered plenty of space to exhibitors with a stake in the cruise industry. The Port authority of Jamaica, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines held booths right next to St. Maarten’s Guavaberry Company and the tourists’ bureaus of destinations like Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia and Martinique. Elsewhere, Colombia, Mexico and Curacao were present among many others. The St. Maarten Zoo, the Nature Foundation, St. Maarten Recycling and Joslyn Richardson’s Hillside Adventures were some of the local representatives. Hillside Adventures was offered a free stand at the exhibition.

Visitors to the exhibition hall lingered until the end of the afternoon when a workshop opened about port and terminal development in the Caribbean. Prominent speakers at this event – actually a lecture that allowed a couple of questions towards the end – were UP-leader and formateur Theo Heyliger, harbor director Mark Mingo, Michael Ronan, Royal Caribbean’s vice president of government relations for the Caribbean,  Gerry Cahill, CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines, Giora Israel, a senior vice president at Carnival, and Michele Paige.

Paige said that Heyliger, when he was a commissioner of the Island Territory back in the nineties, was “a commissioner with a vision and a game plan for the private sector.”

Michael Ronan said that in the seventies, St. Maarten was a bit too far away for the cruise companies. “At first we wanted to discourage St. Maarten from building a cruise pier because we did not want to pay more for coming here.”

Giora Israel noted that in 1995, St. Maarten did not have adequate facilities. The first cruise pier was completed in 2000 and the second one followed in 2009. Israel had a lot of good things to say about Heyliger and his eye for detail. “The palm trees on Front Street have been bought personally by him,” he said. “Theo is a visionary leader for the cruise industry.”

Heyliger remembered that his first meeting with the FCCA back in 1995 was not a pleasant one. “They told me, here are our rules and we do not want a head tax.”

In 1995, the harbor turned over $3 million a year and there was no capital available for expansions. “In 1997 we introduced a head tax of $5, to be reinvested in port facilities. None of it was going back to the government,” Heyliger said.

The first pier had four berths for cruise vessels and St. Maarten introduced the water taxi service. “Ten years ago we had the lowest passenger-spending in the Caribbean, now we are number one or two,” Heyliger said.

While the numbers for 2015 are looking up, Heyliger does not want to hear about complacency. “We need to reinvent ourselves,” he emphasized. “We should never fall asleep because there is always someone ready to take our place.”

Harbor director Mark Mingo said that the port needs to look ahead. There is growth in the number of cruise arrivals but there is a ceiling to that, he pointed out. This is why the port is not only involved in cruise, cargo and yachting activities, but also in real estate. One of the things the port wants to achieve is the creation of a walkway from the port to town along the waterside. Right now, that walkway is situated along the Juan Yrausquin Boulevard. “My nightmare is managing the stakeholders,” Mingo said. A slide showed the myriad of stakeholders the port is dealing with and the image looked exactly the way Mingo described it – a nightmare.

Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill told the audience at the well-attended workshop that St. Maarten offers cruise arrivals a lot of great options in terms of excursions. “But what happens to the passengers that do not take those excursions? They take for instance a water taxi and that is a big deal, because people love to be on the water. They also enjoy shopping in Philipsburg and going to the nearby beach.”

Cahill said that the way crewmembers experience a destination is also important. “If you lose the perspective of guest experience, you may as well close up shop,” he warned.

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