St. Barths Online

News

Jan 29, 2002

Hope floats, even in dismal times

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The tourist season in St. Barth has gotten off, predictably, to a gloomy start. It is no secret that this island depends almost exclusively, whether directly or indirectly on tourism, and that the US, notably the northeast, accounts for most of that tourism. When the United States catches a cold, St. Barth sneezes. The repercussions, actual and potential, of a US economy troubled by a deepening recession and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, are being tracked as closely as a hurricane. Obviously, given the international events, local travel and tourism professionals here were not counting on miracles to occur this season and prepared themselves for lower occupancy rates and decreased monthly figures. It was a realistic response, and included all of the typical corrections made when threatening weather looms over the local economy. Expenses have been curbed, where possible, larger hotel operations have cut back on new hires or existing staff, retail boutiques have lowered prices, or tried working out arrangements with their manufacturers and suppliers. Aggressive promotional campaigns have been launched. Confronted with the sagging numbers, islanders keep deferring their hope-and concern-one month at a time.
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October traffic was very slow, and November, considered the start of the high season, was disappointingly sluggish, notably over the Thanksgiving holidays. Harbor and airport entry statistics bore out November's atypical calm. Airport entry statistics, gathered by the customs police, showed a 20% drop in November's American arrivals. The number itself is hard to interpret, however, because since the crash of the Air Caraibes flight 1701 last March, some tourists have been unable to quell their fears about an airport landing and have opted for sea shuttles from St. Martin to St. Barth via private boats. Luckily, business picked up during the Christmas holidays for many island boutiques, hotels and restaurants, only to die down again in January. Though the statistics are virtually impossible to verify, informal consensus opinions that business is down by 30%. It's a considerable drop, similar to the one the island economy experienced during the Gulf War.
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In Gustavia harbor, there are less and less cruise ships. Internally, this can be attributed as the direct result of a political will that has sought to brake mass tourism, considered by many as unsuited to the image, reputation and the infrastructural limits of St. Barth. There, are however, more global factors that have come into play. When 9/11 occurred, one of the industry's biggest casualties was the cruise ship giant, Renaissance. Since the attacks, the company filed for bankruptcy and canceled the 26 stops it had planned to make in St. Barth this season. "There have never been so few cruise ships in St. Barth," say Jerome Montoya, head of SMTA, the island's largest cruise ship agent. Adds Montoya, "figures were down by 35% for October, 70% in November, and I don't ever remember a January with such few ports-of-call."
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Local tourism professionals are now taking a hard look at what the rest of the season holds in store, and wondering how to brace themselves for the lean summer months ahead. The island is vulnerable, to hurricanes, to the fluctuations of the American economy, to international events, political instability, and the events that affect air travel and the travel industry both regionally and abroad. With so much of its economic welfare dependent on external factors, local business and political leaders are now looking at ways to take a greater, more proactive stance in the economic health of the local tourism market.
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One of the ideas currently gaining in popularity is the creation of a bonafide tourism office. The concept has existed for years, but now seems to be garnering more political support, as long as the community purse does not fund the office's operating expenses. Municipal leaders believe that staff salaries, promotional budgets, and overhead should be covered by vacation taxes levied on hotel rooms and rental villas. The hospitality industry is not so keen on paying for a public function with a private purse, so the question will be up for debate in the months to come.
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Tourism professionals have gotten very proactive about more aggressively marketing their destination and are now looking to attract English tourists. In view of the possible creation of a direct flight from London to St. Kitts with connecting flights to St. Martin, Anguilla and St. Barth, an advertising campaign is currently being prepared that would promote the aforementioned islands, St. Barth included, in the UK.
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In addition to intelligent marketing strategies, good press has become a particularly valuable means of prompting potential tourists to come to St. Barth. A team from the travel magazine "Voyages", recently flew down to do an article on St. Barth which should soon be published in France, Italy, Great Britain and the United States.
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Lastly, eight of the island's most prestigious hotels (the Filao Beach, the Carl Gustaf, the Christopher, Francois Plantation, the Guanahani , the Eden Rock, Le Toiny and Isle de France have created a new association, "the Gourmet Hotels of St. Barth". The club's mission statement is to promote the French gourmet cuisine in St. Barth that they offer. To do so, they are collaborating with some of Manhattan's most renowned restaurants, among them, Le Cirque, Cipriani and Balthazar.
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Island businesses are also banking on the sixth edition of the ag2r, a biennial transatlantic sailing race from Lorient, on the coast of Brittany, to St. Barth bolster a month whose revenues are scant. With a projected May arrival, the boats are expected to draw heavy media attention to the island and the sports event it is co-sponsoring during a month of the year that is typically low on visitors.
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Until then, the local business consensus is that the current situation can and will improve, that the local economy will recuperate its tan, and that a hard season will have successfully been navigated through rough waters to safer shores. February and March reservations look good, and Air France has announced that as of March 31, the company will be offering a direct flight from Paris to St. Martin, which will make travel from Europe far more convenient.
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Like the message in a bottle, flung into the sea, hope floats, even in dismal times.
Yves Bourel


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