Interview with St Lucian Tourism Minister Sen. Allen Chastanet

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By Alexander Britell

St Lucians head to the polls on Monday, with a choice between Prime Minister Stephenson King’s ruling United Workers Party and former Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony’s Saint Lucia Labour Party. The major issues in a tightly-fought campaign include jobs, the economy, and the Taiwan-China question – with the UWP standing on ties forged with Taiwan in 2007, and the SLP’s on its former relationship with China. CJ Politics talked about the election with Sen. Allen Chastanet (UWP), currently the country’s Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation, who is now running for the Soufriere and Fond St Jacques constituency in the country’s Parliament against MP Harold Dalson.

What is the biggest issue facing St Lucia right now?

Obviously, everybody’s very concerned about the world economy, and what’s going to be happening. I think that jobs are the number one issue. The recession affected all of us, but luckily for us in St Lucia it wasn’t as bad as other places – people want to know that they have a government that is going to create jobs.

What has your party been focusing on in the election?

We’ve been focusing on our achievement. St Lucia has now become the largest economy in the OECS, and we were the only island in the Caribbean to have positive growth in 2010, at 4.4 percent. We have become the largest exporter in the OECS, and the largest foreign exchange earner. We have seen a record year of tourism arrivals in 2010, and seen our agriculture being beefed up despite the two hurricanes we had. We’re focusing on the recovery of Hurricane Tomas, and continuing the efforts we put in. We think we’ve done a really incredible job considering the level of devastation from Hurricane Tomas. Finally, with the assistance of the Taiwanese government, we’ve been able to put in a lot of infrastructure in the community.

How would you describe the state of St Lucian tourism?

The biggest improvement was that the government came in and doubled the expenditure on marketing – it was about $8 million, and we brought it to $16 million, which was able to create significant increases in airlift. We lost Air Jamaica very early on, and we lost Caribbean Star, and that was a huge blow to us, but we were able to replace it with additional flights out of Miami and with expanded Delta flights. American [Airlines] came out of New York, and now we have Jet Blue. We’ve seen almost a quadrupling of airlift out of Canada. We also now have a daily British Airways flight – when we came in, there was only about half a flight once a week. With that, the marketing efforts and the increased capacity, we were able to go from 670,000 arrivals to just over a million, and we saw revenue go from $700 million to $1.5 billion. So we’ve been very successful with that strategy, and that’s despite the recession, and with several of the hotel projects that were underway getting stopped because of the banks going out of business – it would have been even further.

Earlier this month, Caribbean Journal reported on a World Bank analysis showing that ST Lucia was rated the easiest place to do business in the Caribbean. Talk about that ranking, and how it can be improved upon.

Well, we’ve regained the top position again as being the top place to do business in the Caribbean. But this government is not happy with that – we feel we need to start seeing significant gains against the world – our competitors are not so much the Caribbean, but other countries in the world. What we’d like to see is an increase in the rankings. The government has put in place a productivity and competitiveness council, which is a public and private sector organization, to deal specifically with the things that are preventing the economy from being able to grow further. So we’re expecting big results from that council.

What has the tenor of this election been like so far?

It’s been very, very competitive. I think it’s been two very different styles. The UWP has really run a grassroots campaign, very constituency-based, with some national imagery, but predominantly on a constituency basis. The SLP on the other hand, has run a very aggressive national campaign, mainly through electronic media. Obviously there’s been a lot of back and forth as there normally is in the campaign, a lot of name calling as there normally is in the campaign. But I think the UWP has tried to maintain itself on what it’s achieved, and let that speak for itself.

One issue CJ Politics has been talking to Caribbean candidates about is CARICOM integration. What do you think about CARICOM integration and what will happen with the movement going forward?

It’s been a very difficult five years for a lot of people economically, and a lot of people seem to have gone more inwardly in terms of first making sure they take care of themselves. What’s happening in CARICOM is no different than any place in the world. I still think that one of the things that limits the ability of CARICOM is international communication – like airlift and fast ferries. Until we can integrate our society so it’s affordable to fly and transport between our countries, and there is more trade between our countries, CARICOM will remain something very nebulous and only an aspiration.

How do you see the election playing out – what will be the deciding factor for St Lucians?

It’s always very difficult to predict an election, particularly when you’re participating actively in it. But I think that the UWP has been able to get our message across, and the fact that we have delivered to the people of St Lucia and continued to see the economy grow [is important]. I think the Prime Minister has come across as being compassionate, but with the right amount of emphasis on the growth of the economy. The Taiwan vs. China [issue] is definitely a referendum item – whether St Lucians want to return to a relationship with Mainland China, and bring Chinese workers to be able to construct projects, or have continued growth, where Taiwan has been doing technical transfers [to St Lucia], including areas like tilapia farming, shrimp farming, putting in a tissue lab, and the growth of greenhouses in St Lucia. So I think that will be a huge issue that the public of St Lucia will be voting on. Ultimately, I believe that the UWP will win the next election – really it’s about what kind of majority.

 

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