Published On: Wed, Feb 7th, 2024

Department of Statistics optimistic

~ It is highly anticipated that the country will surpass the 2016 record in the coming years ~

By Hilbert Haar

Our tourism industry is not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. This appears from data provided by the Department of Statistics. The nature of the explanation with the numbers is jubilant but that is only because the researchers compare the 2023 numbers with those of the previous two years.

And for sure, there is a positive trend but the numbers do not come even close to the pre-hurricane years of 2016. The Department of Statistics chooses for an overly optimistic approach, saying that because of the current upwards trend “it is highly anticipated that the country will surpass the 2016 record in the coming years.”

Let’s take a look at the numbers first. In 2023 St. Maarten recorded 395,053 stay-over visitors. In 2022 that number was 292,808, in 2019 319,696 and in 2016 it peaked at 528,153. The report mentions that 2023 saw an increase of 6 percent over 2022 and of 24 percent over the pre-pandemic year 2019. What is does not say is that 2023 is 133,100 visitors below the results of 2016 – a negative difference of 25.2 percent.

What does that really mean for our local economy? Exact numbers are not available, but these visitors spend money on accommodation, car rental, food and beverages and activities. Some of them stay for a relative short period, while others live for months on end on our island. Even if those 133,100 visitors that did not come to St. Maarten in 2023 spent just $100 per person, it would represent a loss of revenue for the economy of around $13.3 million. That’s of course a very low estimate and it only applies to stay-over visitors.

What about cruise arrivals? With 1,318,177 arrivals in 2023 that number looks a lot more promising but it is still below the pre-pandemic level of 2019 (1,631,657) and way below 2016 (1,668,683). The difference with 2016 is 350,506 fewer arrivals. According to the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) the average spending per cruise arrival in St. Maarten was $191.26 during the 2014/2015 cruise year. The average across 35 destinations was $103.83.

The drop in arrivals of 350,506 results therefore in a loss of revenue of more that $67 million for the local economy and $36.3 million if your use the average spending across 35 destinations as your measuring stick.

It seems clear to me that there is nothing to be happy about with the current numbers. The loss of revenue affects everyone: not only the car rentals and the stores but also the government (think turnover tax).

The question is of course what we are going to do about this. The manifestos of the political parties that won seats during the January 11 elections speak about strengthening the tourism industry. That’s a great idea (I am not being sarcastic here) but the question is of course: how do these parties plan to strengthen that industry? How they propose to bring more visitors to our island?

And before answering that question: is it actually a good idea to bring more visitors to our shores? Was it not the intention to diversify the economy? Have we learned nothing from the almost total collapse of our tourism-driven economy?

Apparently not. The focus of politicians remains firmly on cruise and stay-over arrivals. They are (or rather they were) the lifeblood of our economy. But those days are gone, my friends.  Banking on a vulnerable industry like tourism is like saying that you are depending on the kindness of strangers. Is that how we want to live our lives?

If we want to take care of our own affairs and free ourselves from the dependency on strangers, we’ll have to come up with a damn good plan of action. If I had the answers, I would present that plan here – but like our decision makers, I don’t have the answers either.