Fellow Citizens of St. Maarten,
As we say goodbye to 2021, and welcome 2022, a year of hope and continued progress, we acknowledge that it has been a year of many lessons, opportunities for growth, despair and hope, challenges and progress, and this on the heels of a year where the world stood still for the virus known as SARS Cov2 or COVID-19. In 2021, we progressed with much more understanding of what we were dealing with, and some experience on the more effective health care protocols to safeguard our people. As a result, we have adjusted to our new normal - One in which we wash our hands more often, sanitize more frequently, wear masks to protect ourselves and others, and vaccinate to build herd immunity, and minimize the possibility of variants.
The world’s latest variant, Omicron - though apparently milder in its presentation, has proven to be more contagious and easily spread. As a result, we have adjusted our protocols, and I pray we are able to maintain a low hospitalization count, while promoting the vaccines and booster to be able ensure the safety of our people, and that our economy and our families’ livelihood remains sustainable and resilient.
I take this time to extend deepest condolences to all who have lost loved ones in 2021, who are still hurting at this time, and are overwhelmed by the realities of life. I encourage you to stay strong, faithful and filled with hope and gratitude, taking it one day at a time. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your families as you mourn the loss of your loved one.
2021 has brought awareness of reality of life, it has highlighted the importance of family time, of safeguarding our mental health, and the need to protect our most vulnerable groups, especially women and children. It has helped us to reaffirm our faith in God, and in our own capacity to make positive changes in our lives and the lives of others.
Despite the serious challenges we faced, including lack of capacity and financing, the Government of St. Maarten has made significant advancements over the past 12 months thanks to the commitment and hard work of our civils servants, collaboration with key stakeholders such as SMDF, NRPB, VNGi, our high councils, and thanks to access to funding/technical assistance via the EU, RESEMBID and other funding agents.
We have seen progress in areas of the reconstruction projects approved by government under the NRPB, the National Recovery Program Bureau, as executing agency which was implemented after Hurricane Irma to build back a stronger St. Maarten. Many projects were carried out on behalf of and in collaboration with government during 2021 with continuation in 2022 and beyond.
Government has embarked on its digitalization of services to enhance the efficiency of delivery and access to selected public services for our citizens and businesses, as well as the resiliency of our government systems. This project began this year with the Ministry of General Affairs whereby, the civil registry department has been able to take seven of its services online. The general-public can now request services via an online request form thereby minimizing lines at the building.
This Ministry was and remains instrumental in the implementation of the Country Package of reforms, working on legislation and policies, while supporting all other ministries. Focus has been on ICT, Personnel and Organization, Legal Affairs and Legislation, Facilities Management and Disaster Risk Management. We have also focused on building relationships with key partners and seeking to collaborate as much as possible within the region and the Kingdom with support from the Cabinet of the Plenipotentiary Minister. We will continue to seek solutions to enhance training and hiring of personnel to build capacity, and enhance service to the general-public.
During 2021, our Ministry of Finance continued with the St. Maarten Stimulus and Relief Plan (SSRP) whereby businesses and unemployed persons financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic were assisted with funds needed to survive. An initiative from this Ministry that must be commended is the Learn-SMART program in collaboration with the St. Maarten Development Fund whereby, the public has been offered the opportunity to enhance their skills or acquire new skills via free Coursera courses which continue in 2022. The Ministry has enabled online payments for a few services including the 2022 Vehicle Road Tax and plans to establish QR codes to abolish yearly purchase of license plates. The Ministry continues to aim for the creation of data-driven policies.
This is the first time in the history of St. Maarten, that a Minister of Justice has travelled to the Netherlands to form working relations with our European counterpart to strengthen our justice chain. After 11 years as a country, The Ministry of Justice has successfully completed and established a Function Book for the personnel of the departments within the Ministry, all within a year. The Ministry has also implemented its parking policy for Philipsburg city center and continues to bring awareness about domestic and gender-based violence including support for victims of a crime.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport continues to provide financial support for our students to obtain tertiary education here on St. Maarten and abroad as we take into account the current and future occupational needs of St. Maarten. With the assistance of the St. Maarten Trust Fund, 3 schools have been repaired, and 16 remaining are scheduled to commence in 2022. Sports facilities are all up and running, and are expected to get further repairs as ERP1 Project of the Trust fund is extended in 2022.
The Ministry of VROMI has also tackled the implementation of several policies to enhance transparency of its services to the public. The Ministry has been working on the development of policies for tenders as well as a land issuance policy which has been lacking for many years. In a bid to best serve the people of St. Maarten, these policies will be implemented as soon as possible. The Ministry of VROMI will be embarking on emergency road repairs as of early next week, beginning with Front Street. In 2022, long term solutions will be implemented, including installing a drainage system to avoid deformation of the bricks in the future.
Also in 2022, via the Trust Fund, plans for long-term solid waste management will start to take shape and works will start to put remaining parts of the electrical grid underground. 64 social homes will be repaired under SMHDF and funding secured to add to the housing market.
Our Minister of Public Health, Labor and Social Development continues to work with our Kingdom Partners via Public Health Consultations to ensure best protocols are being implemented. The Ministry and in particular the Collective Prevention Services together with the Vaccination Management Team have been able to continually provide COVID-19 tests free of charge for persons with symptoms of the virus and have been able to score a vaccination rate of 43% for St. Maarten. Vaccinations, including booster shots will continue to be promoted, and the health protocols will continue to be highly enforced.
Under labor, the Ministry continues to collaborate with the tripartite, promotes local hiring for new projects, job fairs and training programs to further assist persons to find employment. Under the Trust Fund, 11 hurricane shelters stand ready to provide safe refuge in times of emergency with Management Plans prepared by the Ministry. The SMDF in collaboration with the Dutch Red Cross has also completed recreational community spaces in several districts which promote health as well as community involvement in the management of the spaces.
Our Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Traffic and Telecommunication has been very iconic in aiding the restart of the cruise industry in the region. St. Maarten being the first country to not only restart cruise tourism, but also embark on home porting via our prestigious Port St. Maarten with MSC. This has truly given our economy the needed boost to get back to our pre-Irma numbers. As such, we continue to delve into ways in which we are able to diversify our economy via micro-financing loans under the ESP program of the Trust fund. 100 small business owners are able to grow, thrive and succeed, all while receiving valuable hands-on support from the ESP team, promoting local businesses, entrepreneurship, and the exploration of our agriculture market. The Ministry has also laid the framework for the development of the St. Maarten Tourist Authority, and will continue to work towards sustainable approach within the business entry structure by facilitating online business applications.
Cruise and Air tourism are bouncing back, with numbers looking positive in the high season and opportunities for greater diversification of our tourism product. St. Maarten was awarded the Sea-trade ‘We are Back’ award in 2021, representing our commitment to the industry and a realization of the path forward that St. Maarten will be taking as a leading destination once again. Our airport terminal reconstruction project is underway since October 2021. The Ministry continues to support endeavors to grow our orange economy, giving artists an opportunity to earn a living doing what they are truly passionate about; and by promoting SXM made products and services.
Hope and Progress remain at the forefront of our attitude and work ethic as we close 2021 and welcome 2022. We do so in gratitude for the blessings bestowed on St. Maarten, for while the world was hit by the reality of COVID-19, we must acknowledge the opportunities afforded to us to regroup, fast track and make SXM more resilient while creating more opportunities for its citizens to survive and thrive.
We are grateful for opportunities for continued education and lifelong learning, commitment to improve our services by going digital in a number of areas. Bringing more checks and balances to our day-to-day operation while focusing on efficiency and effectiveness.
As government of St. Maarten, we have been at the table with our Kingdom partners seeking for fair and equitable treatment of St. Maarten and the other countries in the Kingdom. We will continue to do so in 2022, even as we define more and more for ourselves who we are, where we want to be and what we are prepared to do in the short, medium and long term as we prepare for the future we must design.
Our focus is on building a Nation of strong, self-sufficient people, by improving the quality of life, improving opportunities for progress for each citizen by creating opportunity, nurturing pride, promoting culture and community involvement. It will take all of us working together, and I challenge each of us to do so in 2022 and beyond.
On behalf of the Council of Ministers, I wish you a blessed and joyous New Year.