Eyes on the ball

Eyes on the ball

The latest occupancy rates of St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association (SHTA) in the Friday/Saturday edition of this newspaper confirm that the destination is still very much recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. An overall growth of just 6% was recorded for November through February compared to a year ago.

The total number of room nights for the high season up to now is 23% less than during the same period prior to the devastating impact of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, despite having only 84% of the available inventory back then.

With an average occupancy of 64% last year St. Maarten lags behind the other two Dutch Caribbean countries Curaçao (71%) and Aruba (75%). December even stayed 2% below 2021, when several competing vacation spots were still not fully open and pent-up travel demand played a role.

One must also consider that Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) remains in makeshift mode, which doesn’t exactly help. The arrival of new jet bridges (see related story) in any case offers better prospects for the future.

The good news is that last month’s occupancy was 81%, a 7% increase from February 2022. Hopefully that upward trend continued in March with the Heineken Regatta and SXM Festival, while Easter and Carnival usually produce quite a few visitors in April too.

Hoteliers are said to be worried about the lack of a pick-up in tourism ahead of the traditionally lower-occupancy summer. To improve that outlook, the St. Maarten Tourism Bureau (STB) is reallocating some available funds for a digital advertising campaign.

SHTA supports the latter but says current spending on promotion is only 40% compared to the French side, Aruba and Curaçao measured on a per room basis. Clearly, this gives them a “bang for your buck” advantage.

As Parliament debates the already tardy draft 2023 budget that must be balanced, earmarking more money for this purpose seems unlikely, but perhaps creative ways can be found to raise extra cash required to put enough “heads in beds” and so help ensure the viability of the dominant hospitality industry year-round. Such efforts ought to include attracting guests from potential low-season markets like South America.

It should indeed be seen as an investment rather than expense, which according to SHTA provides a five-fold return to government in revenue. Besides, the livelihood of practically the entire population depends on “everybody’s business” to a large extent.

The “Friendly Island” – as a whole – therefore needs to keep its eyes firmly focused on the ball.

The Daily Herald

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