Above: St Maarten Tourism Minister Claret Connor (CJ Photo)
By Alexander Britell
PHILIPSBURG — St Maarten one of the Caribbean’s most famous tourism destinations, and a leading cruise hub. It’s also a place that has changed significantly in the past two decades and is likely to see more in the coming years.. And after growth last year upwards of 7 percent, St Maarten Tourism Minister Claret Connor wants to see tourism continue to climb — in a way that increases development for the people. To learn more about tourism on the island, CJ talked to Connor, a former hotelier and executive director of the St Maarten Chamber of Commerce, at his office in Philipsburg.
What’s the state of tourism in St Maarten right now?
The thing about tourism on the island is, I was born and raised here, so I’ve seen tourism develop over the years. My background is in the hospitality industry, I studied and worked in it, so the development of tourism, my impression of it, is that we are working on it. We are working on it from the perspective of the development of our product, from the perspective of the development of the people and also from the perspective of the infrastructure in terms of hotel accommodations and restaurants. St Maarten and the French side have been known as a destination for good food for years, and we want to stay ahead. You have to do like Coca-Cola does — you have to constantly reinvent yourself and improve.
What are your biggest priorities since taking over?
First and foremost, as any new Minister would in this field, I have to go out and shake hands, get to know the partners, in terms of not only locally, but regionally and internationally, and that requires some time. The intention in the first quarter of the year [was] to make sure that I reached out to our partners, our tour operators, the executives within the industry, to hear from them and see what we can do to make the experience better, for clients, the tourists, and for our partners in developing the industry. Secondly, with that information, we are then equipped to understand where we are in terms of the service and the experience that we’re working for people to enjoy. One of the things I’ve been always focused on is the economic development that we enjoy from the industry — it has to reach the social aspect of the country. People have to feel a sense of ownership with what we are doing as a destination. They have to ensure that the experiences that we provide our visitors are representative for the people of the country and vice versa.
People have to feel a sense of ownership with what we are doing as a destination.”
How much does that play into sustainable tourism?
That is not only about sustainable tourism, because what we have done over the years, and in my opinion, you can see it in the numbers, is we have grown. This is about developing. Once the development is done properly, that automatically has a sustainable element built into it. So one generation can teach the next generation and so on and so forth. That’s why it’s important for all governments, in St Maarten and elsewhere, to understand that the consistency and longevity of any product is basically how well you develop that product.
Talk about the cruise sector on the island.
We always refer back to that experience we had 20 years ago when we experienced Hurricane Luis. Everyone refers to Luis as “The Hurricane.” That set us back in terms of room inventory tremendously. So what came out of that was the emerging of the cruise tourism. Last year we reached that 2 million person milestone. But what should come out of that? We should see that as two million opportunities to convert those cruise passengers into stayover passengers. Of course, it’s the chicken and the egg — you’ve got the passengers, now you need the room inventory. And it has to be in such a way where you look not only at timeshare and all-inclusives, but a nice room inventory mix of hotels as well. Because we’re a country that enjoys a number of ethnic groups that live here, our food is representative of that, so you have people to come and enjoy the culture of St Maarten, and it’s usually experienced in the way that people eat. So we have so many different restaurants, and you want to have that mix where you now have a number of hotel rooms to accommodate an increase in stayover arrivals.
How much do you work with tourism officials on the French side?
We’re joined at the hip, basically. We are very much reaching out to one another because it’s mutually beneficial to work together in terms of how we promote St Maarten. Because it’s a destination that gives you value for your money in terms of the experiences that exist. We are a Dutch island shared with a French island that is in the Caribbean and surrounded by other small islands that people can enjoy. So basically it’s not only about the Dutch side, it’s about Anguilla, also about St Barth, Saba and St Eustatius.
What would be your dream for tourism in St Maarten?
My dream is to leave behind a product that would transcend times. In the sense of, I always look at things in terms of paying it forward and how preparing the people today is about preparing them for tomorrow. It’s about understanding where we’re from. I’ve seen it develop, as someone who used to jump off the little pier there in Philipsburg as a child, where now the Philipsburg beach is completely overrun with sunbathers coming off the cruise ship. And understanding how we’ve come to that level. What I would love to see if for us to really protect that and preserve that, so generation after generation not only takes care of those that are coming, but parents bring their kids and their children bring their children. Because that is what I’ve seen — persons who have been coming for the last 25 to 30 years to the country, now their children are here with their kids.