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Opening Remarks from Minister Johnson for the 2019 Budget debate in the House of Parliament

Madame Chair Lady, honourable Members of Parliament, fellow St. Maarteners who are listening via radio and viewing on Facebook, and those in the tribune, Good afternoon!

I am honoured to be here today, to present to you the Budget Proposals for the Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport & Telecommunication, for 2019/2020.

Madame Chairlady, my Ministry has prepared a summary document, which is aimed at setting into perspective the context of the budget for the coming financial year. This document identifies the priorities of the Ministry and considers the interests of trade unions, private sector, government-owned companies that fall under the Ministry of TEATT and the general improvement of our Tourism Product, as we continue to work towards the revitalization and stability of our economy.

Madame Chair Lady, our present economic situation forces us to operate with significant constraints where it concerns budgeting, to satisfy the many needs of our people and the economy. Increased dialogue and a bipartisan approach are essential to creating a unified comprehension of the issues at hand. This unified approach should lead to a joint agreement on the way forward. As Minister of TEATT, it is ultimately my responsibility to guide the process for my Ministry, to see to it that our limited resources are allocated and efficiently utilized.

During the presentation, we will outline critical variables along with our budget priorities and strategy. Notwithstanding, the overall priorities for the Government of St. Maarten continue to be revitalizing the economy, putting our citizens back to work, reopening our existing hotels and attracting new hotels, reopening our Airport back to its full capacity, along with bringing businesses back on track.

An important area of need and still a top priority is the restoration of homes for our citizens as well. Within the Ministry of TEATT, we continue to focus on Service Cultural Standards throughout the island considering our core business is Tourism. We are maintaining the existing infrastructure at the Harbour while making every effort to complete the rehabilitation of the PJIA. We need to focus on the product development of our tourism industry as well as aggressive destination marketing. While we work to solve the financial needs of PJIA, the Civil Aviation Department is engaged in the process to return our destination to CAT 1 status after it was downgraded. This return to CAT 1 will have a positive effect on our airlifts as we will be able to provide code share and interline connections to international US carriers. This is expected to improve our hub function role in the region, and our local airlines will be able to fly to the US mainland. The challenge to find adequate and urgent funding for the reconstruction of PJIA has not helped our country's economic revitalization efforts. This must be done urgently as the Ministry of TEATT has already started to engage new markets while we maintain a strong presence in existing markets. These efforts would be counterproductive if we are unable to finalize the reconstruction of the Airport in a timely fashion.

Some priority projects in line with our stated goals as part of our recovery and development effort include spending an estimated three million eight hundred and fifty-eight thousand, one hundred and eighteen guilders (Naf. 3,858,118.00) on Product development . This includes working to improve visitor relations, various Tourism Diversification Projects in areas of Sports, Culture and Eco-Tourism and continued Destination Marketing and visitor awareness programs in our key markets.

To achieve the economic success we envisage for St. Maarten, it is urgent that we rebuild PJIA. This reconstruction must include US Preclearance. By Mid-July, we expect the completion of the new roof at PJIA, which is a major, accomplishment given our limited resources.

The Tourism Master Plan for 2020 to 2030 will be finalized as a roadmap to product improvement and a guide to positioning ourselves to compete against the rest of the Caribbean and the rest of the world. We will develop tourism regulations and increase training and education programs in hospitality and Customer Service for residents.

Meeting these objectives will improve efficiency, and stimulate faster private sector growth while creating new employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. It is essential to note that these objectives are ambitiously being executed with a clear understanding of our financial limitation at present, and taking into account the regional and international competition for Airlifts and Cruise visitor arrivals.

Madame Chairlady at the centre of our budget and policy planning is the understanding of our real GDP Growth. During my presentation, I will provide the most recent economic indicators and forecasts. This will serve as the basis and catalyst for our priorities and activities. The budgetary constraints will also serve as the parameter to establish the priorities as the reality is, Government, and by extension the Ministry, CANNOT do it ALL at the same time!

Our capacity as a tourism destination is being addressed on several fronts to ensure that sufficient beds are available for the large number of visitors we intend to attract. One such method of addressing this issue is the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with Airbnb to allow the use of this service for visitors. We have also been working tirelessly to finalize the administrative process to allow construction on the 459 room Planet Hollywood to begin.

We are pleased that already there are 73 operational excursions and 193 restaurants in operation.

These new developments have another direct impact as they translate into much-needed work for our residents and reduce unemployment.

Madame Chairlady the 2019 season started as a promising year with improved economic activity coming from the reopening of larger hotels and the return of several airlines and cruise ships to our destination.

All indications are that we will have a better than projected visitor arrival this year at the Princess Juliana International Airport and our Cruise facility.

This positive sign regarding visitor arrivals is thanks in part to the return of operations to the Main Terminal Building in December to accommodate more aircraft arrivals. It is also due to the joint efforts of the Tourist offices of both the French and Dutch side to spread the word internationally that St. Maarten is open for business. We also received a significant boost from the celebration of our 50th year of Carnival as thousands of visitors came to our shores. The Statistics Department and the St. Maarten Tourist Office will be extracting figures from our exit survey which we will use as a guide for hosting our future entertainment events such as Carnival 51 and the Heineken Regatta which turns 40 in 2020.

While this is positive for our economic revitalization, the reality remains that there must be a significant shift in our long-term, plan to safeguard this economy. I cannot emphasize enough the need to urgently rebuild the PJIA with US Preclearance as a critical step towards protecting our industry.

We have shown that our people are more than capable of directing our government-owned companies. PJIA was the brainchild of local Political stalwarts, and under the guidance of local Management Teams and Boards, we created a beautiful and award-winning and profitable Airport. What we are experiencing today at the PJIA is not the result of a lack of qualified locals, but the result of the worst natural disaster in our history.

Madame Chairlady, as we look towards the future, within the parameters of the budget, the Ministry of TEATT continues to look at expanding the tourism season and improving the quality of our tourism product. To do this Madame Chairlady, we have identified a few things that must be done as priority.

This includes the implementation of an approved list of activities from the Economic Recovery Plan. It also includes developing an Investment Policy, promote backyard gardening for healthy eating, finalizing the Public Bussing Research Project on restructuring the public bussing system as well as working on public transportation legislation to ensure that service levels are drastically improved and the service providers in the transportation industry are better regulated and protected.

We will facilitate improvements in the Maritime industry paying attention to the environmental impacts on our ecosystem. The Ministry of TEATT has budgeted Naf. 250,000. to be invested in the implementation of the Gaming Control Board and updating the gaming regulations to meet international standards. To ensure that everyone who wants to start a business can do so in a responsible manner, the Ministry of TEATT will also finalize the revision of the Business License and Public Vending Ordinance.

Once this is done Madame Chairlady, it will address several bottlenecks and make way for improved vending and increased entrepreneurial opportunities.

We will finalize the purchase of a new weather radar to the tune of Naf. 1,203,380 and complete the development of new Drone Regulations in collaboration with our counterparts in the Netherlands, Aruba and Curacao. Marketing, as indicated earlier, will continue to be aggressive, especially in the North American Market where most of our visitors originate from. In that market, we have budgeted Naf. 1,955,000. on visitor retention and an important though small investment will be made to regain the wider Caribbean's interest in visiting us whether for shopping, leisure or special entertainment events.

The COPA Airline MOU will significantly boost airlifts and increase hub activity at the PJIA. We have therefore joined with our French Counterparts and Anguilla and earmarked Naf. 279,936 towards this initiative while Naf. 103,587 has been budgeted for increasing our presence in the South American Market.

The need to ensure fair trade (on behalf of the consumer and business owner) remains a focal point for the Department of Inspection. It is indeed true that more can always be done to improve the level of service we provide to our people. Therefore, we will review our business Inspection and Calibration policy to ensure that citizens have clear ways of identifying calibrated or un-calibrated machines. We will put measures in place and ensure that the consumer and business owner have a forum to lodge complaints, get answers to frequently asked questions, and have swift resolutions of any problems that may arise. Thankfully to date the department of Inspection has not had many complaints on consumer-related matters.

Madame Chair, the Budget of the Ministry of TEATT, is not what it should be. The marketing of St. Maarten should be better funded. However, while we do not presently have the resources, we are making use of and improving upon the memorandum of understanding on destination marketing signed with our French Counterparts to stretch our resources through shared marketing strategies. Some work still needs to be done at the Harbour to bring it entirely up to standard. Together with the Tourist Bureau, the Harbour Management team has embarked on an aggressive strategy to attract new cruise lines and increase cruise visits of existing ships so that the facility can soon realize a reasonable financial position to undertake capital investments.

We have identified the need for legal assistance in the Ministry to effectively develop and execute policies. There is also a real need to improve the country’s IT services to eliminate service interruption. This means strict policies on the standard of service we as a Government would accept and the regulation of these policies and enforcement of same by the regulator.

The collection of pertinent data to aid in policy planning and in creating strategic marketing plans is critical and to do this, the Department of Economy, Transportation and Telecommunication will need additional human resources. These challenges are being met with creative out of the box thinking.

Closing Remarks

Madame Chairlady while we are still recovering, we have had some great achievements that are worth mentioning. For the first time in 15 years, St. Maarten had two finalists in the FCCA Children's Environmental Poster Competition. Shannaz Horne and Tefari Prevoo Francisco who won the junior and senior divisions of the competition.

Just days ago, St. Maarten hosted the FCCA PAMAC members for its prestigious strategy meeting, which allows us to pitch to top executives on increased cruise visits.

Shipping has significantly increased Post Irma and companies have shown commitment to the destination with investments in new vessels added to the route here.

The Celebrity Edge Cruise ship made its inaugural call at Port SXM in December last year and has resulted in a welcomed increase in positive reviews from cruise passengers as the figures now show the destination scoring 9.3 out of 10 for cruise passenger destination experience.

St. Maarten recently received seven distinctions in the American Publication, USA Today’s 2019 “10 Best of the Caribbean” lists. Several island stakeholders were recognized, and in December, we celebrated the long-awaited return of Air Canada and Air Transat from Canada and the North American Market.

Allow me in closing Madame Chair Lady to use this public sitting of Parliament to thank our many International Partners in the Airline and Cruise Industry for the support we received from them post-Irma. I also wish to thank our development partners, our French counterparts in the Tourism Industry and in Government in General for their support of our efforts to promote the destination. I wish to thank those hoteliers who have worked tirelessly and reinvested in our economy through the reopening of their hotels and putting our people back to work. Many thanks also go to the more than one thousand residents who participated in the Hospitality Training Program at the NIPA School. This training is only one of many as we will invest in reshaping the minds of our citizens to be more service oriented in preparation for a fully revitalized and robust tourism economy.

Madame Chairlady, it would have been next to impossible to attain what we have achieved to date, without the continued partnerships from the private sector and without the people of St. Maarten taking the interest as they have in our rebuilding efforts thus far.

Madame Chairlady this concludes my opening address.

….And May God continue to bless our country and people!