By Industry Veteran Robbie Ferron
Whatever industry Sint Maarten might invite to its shores to help diversify the economy from core stayover tourism, this industry will require nurturing, legislation, some facilitation and sometimes protection.
In the larger scheme of things, the yachting industry has required relatively little of the typical list of industry promotion expenditure, but as the industry on a whole matures in the Caribbean and the competition in the region increases, the position of the industry in Sint Maarten will start to take on a different hue.
The years where the industry grew driven exclusively by private investment that matched the existing opportunities directly of the country are fading into the background as circumstances change in the Caribbean.
Sint Maarten grew fast when prices were low and skilled labour was accessible. Prices have grown and taxation has been imposed where it was not before, whilst competing islands have reduced their pricing and have continued to treat foreign vessels as the non-tax liable customers they are in the rest of the world.
Sint Maarten has not made efforts to correct the reputation it took on after Hurricane Irma when yachts were – for reasons unknown – prevented from salvaging their private property and insurance companies were forced to take larger losses than necessary.
Sint Maarten has left unmarked wrecks in places where safety and convenience for visitors are undermined. The wreck of a dry dock in Simpson Bay reduces a part of the best anchorage and is unlit at night.
The pandemic has made border crossing much more difficult, expensive and impractical for some tourists. Whilst the present government’s protocol is probably the best that could have been created, the circumstances exaggerate the shortcoming that always was in Sint Maarten: the nonexistence of any significant cruising ground.
The Caribbean yachting visitor in this coming season will likely be choosing his cruising area on the basis of how seldom he can cross a border and still enjoy many anchorages. We have unfortunately a poor offering in that regard.
The weak points of the yachting industry have been compensated to a significant degree by investments of various types, which should be an attraction. Many stakeholders in the industry have held on since Irma and appear to continue through the pandemic.
The most crucial gap in Sint Maarten is probably the lack of a powerful political person who has a deep understanding of this niche industry. Whilst the industry may be significant in its gross domestic product (GDP) contribution in Sint Maarten, it is niche in nature.
In itself, it is divided into many smaller niches: superyachts and cruisers, powerboats and sail racers, inflatables and classics, monohulls and multihulls, splendid and humble, competent and incompetent, demanding and grateful.
As the industry has grown, the knowledge base to govern and facilitate it has not. This lack of leadership has impacted the last few years of the yachting industry’s existence. Or, do I see some leadership on the horizon?
Robbie Ferron is the founder of St. Maarten Heineken Regatta, Sint Maarten Yacht Club, and Budget Marine, and a former President of the Caribbean Sailing Association.