Published On: Mon, Oct 21st, 2019

Center stage for Port St. Maarten at cruise convention in Puerto Rico

FCCA 2019 Highlights magazine cover with Port St. Maarten

PHILIPSBURG – Cruise port St. Maarten takes center stage as the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) convention in Puerto Rico opens on Monday with a splendid picture of the port by photographer Christine Garner on the cover of the FCCA Magazine.

The magazine recaps the 55-year history of cruise port St. Maarten in a three-page article, noting how the port was inaugurated on June 3, 1964; how it received 105,000 cruise passengers in 1980 and hit the one million mark for the first time in 2002.

“Today it is one of the top locations in the North East Caribbean, due to its approach of listening to cruise lines and understanding the business,” the article states.

The turning point for the port arrived in 1995 when Hurricane Luis destroyed the island’s infrastructure. It took some time, but by 2007 the port opened the 545-meter long Dr. A.C. Wathey South Pier, enabling the destination to accommodate four cruise ships simultaneously. Two years later that number went up to six when the 445-meter long North Pier became operational.

The cruise industry has had a huge impact on the development of St. Maarten. That’s partly due to the agreement to earmark cruise port fees for cruise-related development, rather than let the money disappear into the government’s coffers. The upgrade of Front Street and Back Street, the construction of the boardwalk and, in 2013, the causeway bridge across the Simpson Bay Lagoon are all part of this development, as is the upgrade of the Captain Hodge wharf and the construction of the Walter Plantz Square and its tender jetty.

In May St. Maarten was named best cruise port by Caribbean Journal in its Travel Choice Awards 2019; the port also received several other accolades.

The FCCA magazine article also gives the port high marks: “Once cruise passengers step ashore, St. Maarten is where your holiday experience comes alive.”

But the port is more than enthralling cruise business. Its history is tainted with an extensive corruption scheme that cost former port director Mark Mingo his job. Local politicians have in the past openly wondered where the seat of the government really is: at Clem Labega Square (the former location of the elected government) or in the cruise port where decisions about major infrastructure development were pushed through outside the government’s decision making process.

Currently, the port is a bone of contention because of plans to outsource management to a third party. StMaartenNews.com reported already in June that the so-called Cupecoy shadow government – a group that includes suspended MP Theo Heyliger, former MP Silvio Matser, MP Luc Mercelina, as well as casino owner Francesco Corallo and lottery boss Robbie dos Santos – was scheming to hand over the keys of the port – both cruise and cargo – to Global Ports Holding. That option is still on the table, and cruise lines initially did not take the news kindly: they want to know who they are doing business with.

The cruise industry’s preference is clear: it wants to do business with the government of St. Maarten, or with a port controlled by that government, or it wants to take over management itself.

That is no surprise, as Global Ports Holding has entered on different locations in the world into long-term (up to 30 years) concession agreements that give the company control over port fees. In 2015 the company increased terminal fees at a port in Portugal by 10 percent and a year later it upped the prices by another 20 percent. Global Ports revenue comes among other components for 27.1 percent from terminal fees (landing fees, luggage fees and passenger security fees) and for 11.3 percent from retail activities in the port area.

On October 8, the port’s business development and marketing manager Lela Simmonds announced at a press conference that the port is preparing an RFP (Request for Proposal) for the management of the port. Outgoing Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Stuart Johnson spoke at the press conference of “a very transparent and very open bidding process” for the project.

And while a consortium of cruise lines is in the race to grab control of St. Maarten’s port, it seems that Global Ports Holding is running ahead of the pack. GPH’s head of business development in the Americas Colin Murphy said in an interview published in the Daily Herald that the company is prepared to invest between $60 and $110 million in repairs and upgrades and that it would also take over the colossal debt of the port, estimated to be around $200 million.

Interestingly, the interview with Murphy coincided with a press release from the port. In that release the port announced an ambitious investment program for the next two years. It includes the construction of a replica of a historical ship, a mini-replica of the Great Salt Pond and a heritage wall. The port will fund these investments from its own cash flow, according to the press release. The purpose is “to further enhance the guest passenger experience.”

In the same press release, the port announced the search for a long-term strategic partnership – with private port operators or cruise lines. The port is “looking at quality rather than quantity.” Colin Murphy’s goal is of a different nature: “Our job is to get as many ships in here as we can,” he told the Daily Herald.

Image caption: Port St Maarten on the cover of the FCCA magazine coming out, Monday, October 21, 2019, on the first day of the FCCA cruise convention which is being held in Puerto Rico. The Port St. Maarten doesn’t know it’s on the cover so it will be a surprise for the port delegation. Photographer, Christine Garner, took this photo back on November 27,2018, with the middle ship being the Symphony of the Seas, which was on its inaugural call to St. Maarten. The ship on the left is Carnival Conquest and the one on the right was the Star Pride of Windstar Cruises. Image magazine FCCA magazine cover by Christine Garner.