Increased tourism budget key to St. Maarten’s tourism product development

With the 2018 budget discussion upcoming in a few weeks, Minister of Tourism and Economic Affairs Mellissa Arrindell-Doncher is hoping to secure an increase in the tourism budget to meet the various goals of government as laid out in the governing program and re-invigorate St. Maarten’s tourism product.

Avoiding mentioning details of a plan she said has been worked out between her cabinet and the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau led by its Head Rolando Brison, the Minister said serious budget adjustments are being made to form the basis between now and 2018 as to how government can achieve success and boost St. Maarten’s tourism product. To this end, she explained, the (STB) has identified various crucial activities to be executed within the tourism source markets.

The American market

Currently the American market accounts for over 63% of stay-over arrivals, and similar numbers exist for the Cruise market. “It is consequently the destination for which we have the most international airlift arriving into the country, with direct flight to key hubs such as JFK, MIA and Philadelphia. To remain competitive within this market, we have an urgent need for increasing the marketing efforts in this region,” the Minister said. The three main ways in which these marketing efforts will be focused are:

· Through marketing efforts of our marketing firm (MMGY Global)

· Through the proven marketing results of online leading online resellers such as Expedia and Trip Advisor

· Through cooperative marketing efforts with key stakeholders such as the Airport, Harbor and Hotel Associations and international stakeholders

“To only rely on the marketing firm alone to promote the destination will not likely yield positive results. We need a more comprehensive approach to marketing what is by far the most critical tourism market we have. An increase is American marketing budget will be the difference in either being able to grow in the market with new, proven, (cost) effective marketing possibilities, or just not realizing growth within the market,” the Minister said.

Canadian Tourism

The Canadian market is St. Maarten’s fastest growing market in 2016, growing from 44,000 to 57,000 Canadian travelers. Much of the marketing efforts, the Minister said, have been through airline partners, and they have been instrumental in helping the destination have a larger foothold in Canada. “In terms of budget, we will look at repeating our efforts with airline partners, but also using our North American firm to do a broader marketing campaign surrounding the efforts of the airline partners. This should yield to yet another year of growth, since Airline capacity is expected to be up from 2017 to 2018,” the Minister said.

European Tourism

The Minister said the European market has been making some great strides in 2017. The new marketing firm, AviaReps, had hit the ground running, “we have had a physical presence in Benelux at events for the first time in several years, and we are poised to have several new airlines operating out of Europe for us. Most of the budget goes towards our marketing firm, though some funding is also reserved for additional route development for the region.”

Latin American Tourism Budget

It is the opinion of the STB that the Latin American budget situation has been a case of putting the cart before the horse. The Minister said that millions have been invested into this market, but little or nothing was done in terms of route development and creating an actual business plan for how that market should be developed sustainably for St. Maarten.

“We have no direct connection to any of the larger airports in Latin America, with our sole connection to Latin America being Copa through Panama, which is only the 11th busiest airport in Latin America. With this in mind, the budget will reflect contracting a cost-effective firm to develop a business plan for that region, while maintaining Copa Airlines and targeting new airlift.

Caribbean Tourism

Arrindell-Doncher stressed that the effect of Caribbean tourism on the economy is often underestimated. Numbers show that close to 30% of traffic through the airport is from within the Caribbean.

“While we do subsidize Carnival and other events, we do need to do our part from the tourist office itself for promoting the destination surrounding these events. Also, while our brand has been used for global purposes, the brand we currently have does not necessarily speak to our Caribbean travelers. St. Maarten’s geographic location, more relaxed VISA requirements compared to the US, and competitive shopping sector makes it the best place for Caribbean residents to vacation. A new brand campaign will be geared towards increasing this,” the Minister explained.

The Minister also said that information gathered at the stakeholder session in June as well as tourism stakeholder’s comments about the product, was used in finalizing the plan forward. This session, an initiative of the STB, gave stakeholders direct access to St. Maarten’s marketing firms and provided a platform for exchange of information and key actions that should be executed.

“There are specific plans for each market that I simply cannot divulge at this point in time. Tourism, because of our competition in the region, must be approached strategically as well. It is good to note that stakeholders and Ministry TEATT are on the same page when it comes to the fact that an increase in the tourism budget is necessary. Hopefully we get there this year,” she said.

Minister Arrindell-Doncher added that product development is a very important part of overall activities, as marketing to a segment without having an adequate product will not result in repeat traffic. Some of the items in product development are:

· Tourism Awareness

· Hosting of Guests

· Trainings and Certification

· Customer Service/Service with a smile

· Tourism Exit Surveys

· Instagram/Facebook influencers marketing campaign

· Youth Programs

· Small Promoters Funds – Low Season Events

· Lifestyle and Fashion Events

· Sport Tourism – Summer of Sports events