Published On: Mon, Dec 9th, 2019

Hustled and harassed in Philipsburg

Barkers waiting on cruise passengers - 20191209 JH

GREAT BAY — To visit Philipsburg today is to see how the declining benefits of cruise tourism and lack of government support have turned the city into a hustlers’ arena. Hundreds of street advertisers and vendors, many of them illegal immigrants, compete with one another for customers for the shops, bars, the city’s beach and island tours. Often heated discussions ensue, and sometimes even fights.

Cruise passengers reach town on foot, after a ten-minute walk, or aboard a water taxi that drops them off at one of three piers connected to the boardwalk. Tens of barkers await the tourists at strategic locations to lure them to stores on Front Street. Time-share hustlers catcall pedestrians and cabdrivers call on visitors to come with them.

Cruise passengers arriving at AC Wathey Square - 20191209 JH

At Cyrus Wathey Square, where the Courthouse is located, cruise passengers that have taken the brief taxi ride from the port have to pass a cordon of canvassers. Those that are advertising for jewelry stores in Front Street have little luck getting clients. Government allowed Diamond International as the only store to do promotions on all three water taxis. With a huge store at the harbor near the cruise terminal, and a newly opened Hublot store in the harbor, Diamond International is the number one jewelry seller. Cruise tourists that are not yet parading with the silver-colored Diamond International tote bag receive a voucher aboard the water taxi to redeem their bag at the store at Wathey Square. Diamond International hands out hundreds of these branded bags a day.

On the boardwalk beach boys trying to sell beach chairs fight each other over potential customers. The regular price for two beach chairs and an umbrella is twenty-five dollars. The mile-long beach consists of 49 licensed beach spots with a total of 2500 beach chairs. As soon as tourists show interest and have the vendor smiling with satisfaction, other beach boys run up to offer chairs at a lower price. The vendor tries to keep his clients but loses out to his competitors’ bargain price. Often the customers leave altogether in dismay over the hassle, at which point beach boys start arguing and name-calling.

Iconic view Great Bay harbor with beach chairs - 20191209 JH

The loud soliciting, hard-bargaining tactics and vendors constantly walking up and down the boardwalk and beach asking people to buy hats, shirts, souvenirs or pay them for massages and hair braiding, annoys many tourists. There is no escaping it in town: most of the jewelry boutiques, cosmetic stores and souvenir shops have street advertisers standing outside on the pavement to offer passersby free gifts and discounts. These advertisers, most of them immigrant workers, get paid 30 to 40 dollar a day to get at least one new client for that day.

Many of these immigrant workers, or temps as they are called, stay in town. A rundown building in Front Street is a go-to place for immigrant women. Rooms are small with closet walls covered with mold and mildew. Rent is 60 dollars a night. From seven o’clock in the morning Patois echoes from the balcony where women gather and call their children and grandchildren back home via WhatsApp before they go out onto the street. Some afternoons the balcony is the stage for heated discussions about money. Banknotes are counted on a plastic table, the women sitting around it. “Yu a chat fuckery!”, one of them exclaims before she heads to the casino down the street to change the Euro banknotes that are in front of her. “Fifty Euros is worth more than fifty dollars; I want the exact change.”

Cruise passengers arriving at pier Walter Plantz Square - 20191209 JH

Two years after Hurricane Irma pummeled St. Maarten with terrifying force, some of the concrete buildings in Philipsburg that stayed erect, have been renovated and divided up into rooms. A number of families live in just one room. Other rooms are rented out for the night or short periods by word-of-mouth, without being publicly advertised. The Dominican woman that cleans the rooms in one of these buildings says she hasn’t seen her family in almost ten years. “I haven’t managed to get a steady job to seek legal status,” she explains. “I try to make money in many ways. It’s been very hard.”

In February the former Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport, & Telecommunication TEATT, Stuart Johnson, issued a statement in which he said he is concerned about the negative image that soliciting can create for St. Maarten. Johnson announced that the Ministry of TEATT planned to begin working in collaboration with the Justice Department to conduct “a joint operation to deal with this persistent issue.” Johnson said. “We cannot allow the actions of a few persons to tarnish the image of our destination.”

Cruise tourist on Great Bay beach - 20191209 JH

It has never been as bad as it is now, says Jay Alwani, owner of Shiva’s Gold and Gems, a fine jewelry boutique in Front Street. The Alwani family has been in the jewelry business for three generations and in the Caribbean since 1972, with boutiques in Aruba and St. Maarten. “Last week a loyal customer visited us. I was shocked to see how upset she was. She said she felt harassed on her way to the store. Much to my surprise this happened on the boardwalk. I thought she had come walking through Front Street, but she explained she came from the marina and had been stopped numerous times on the boardwalk by solicitors who tried to put cards and flyers in her hands. I tried to calm her down, but she was very distraught.” Alwani shakes his head. “She told me: ‘I love your island, but I will not come back.”

Alwani doesn’t have flyers printed for his store and he refuses to advertise in free publications that are handed out to tourists. His business relies mostly on referrals from hotels. “Our clients should be allowed a hassle-free visit to Philipsburg. The soliciting has to stop. It undoubtedly has an impact on St. Maarten as a destination.”


Photos caption: The photos published with this article were taken Saturday, December 7 2019.

Relevant links:
Businesses in Philipsburg struggle to survive
A lousy day in Downtown Philipsburg


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