About Hilbert Haar
Independent writer, journalist, photographer and former managing editor of the TODAY Newspaper on St. Maarten.
The Most Personal Source For Tourist Information About St. Maarten – St. Martin.
PHILIPSBURG – Hurricane Irma put the Rainforest Adventure Park to the test in September of last year but the project withstood the monster storm perfectly even though the wind speeds at the top of Sentry Hill must have been out of this world.
Irma hit St. Maarten with sustained wind speeds of 185 miles (298 kilometers) per hour with higher gusts reaching 225 miles (362 kilometers). Rainforest’s chief engineer John Dalton says that sustained wind speeds of 200 miles per hour were the minimum design specification for the cable lift that leads from Rockland Estate up to the top of Sentry Hill. “The design took higher wind gusts into consideration. I believe that is approximately what we saw at the top of Sentry Hill so Irma took things right to the edge of the design envelope.”
That the installation survived Irma’s onslaught is not only due to its design; hurricane preparedness also played an important role. Dalton: “We removed all the chairs from the chairlifts and strapped them down, leaving the cables on the towers. We also dropped the zip line cables into the bush and tied them off so they could not get loose. We double barred the hurricane shutters on all the new buildings and put lots of weight on the loose containers.”
The preparation took an effort from employees and contractors that Dalton deeply appreciates. “Our employees and contractors showed up in force and worked very hard to protect all they had built. They deserve tremendous credit for being St. Maarten Strong. Irma showed what an awesome team we have at Rockland Estate.”
Dalton notes that the park was designed to withstand an event like Hurricane Irma. Nevertheless, he says: “We were quite relieved that there was not more damage as things went more or less as planned. The best move we made was to really clean up so there was a minimum of flying debris.”
The hurricane also put the company’s bottom line to the test. After the storm, cruise ships avoided St. Maarten for a while and that put a damper on the number of visitors to the attraction park. Local visitors partially saved the day: The attraction was built for tourists and locals alike and it is the high level of local visitation, even at our guilder=dollar local rate, that has allowed us to get a marginal foothold and keep our employees paid,” Dalton says. “However, as with most businesses, the effect of the hurricane has been negative. We have worked with our partners and lenders to adapt the structure of the project to the current realities of the market.”
Rainforest Adventures had so far proven to be a blessing for the local labor market. Dalton says that the company currently employs sixty people. “We expect the payroll to hopefully increase with business. There are only two foreign employees at the park who are top specialists in their fields.”
The search for a site and the discussions with the government go back to 2009. Rockland Estate quickly stood out, Dalton says. “We were so impressed with the amazing views fro the property, its historical and natural significance and the opportunity to bring a unique destination-defining attraction to St. Maarten that we focused a lot of our organization’s resources on pursuing what we feel is today one of the best attractions in the Caribbean.”
Dalton notes that Rainforest has developed a good working relationship with the government. “We collaborated closely with the government to define the project’s different components and share our planning program. Once they had a firm understanding of the challenges and benefits they took the decision to issue permits. The process took somewhat longer than expected but we are happy to have developed a good working relationship with the government and the community. It is our hope that this investment will serve as an example of the potential in St. Maarten and at the same time help refresh the local tourism product.”
For a more in-depth look at the technical challenges Dalton’s team had to overcome with the design and construction of the Rainforest Adventure park go to: https://skytraclifts.com/john-daltons-lifted-life-in-the-caribbean/
Photo caption: Chief engineer John Dalton at work. Photo skytraclifts.com. Top photo of Rainforest Adventures Skylift installation by Hilbert Haar.
ORIENT BAY – The scars Hurricane Irma inflicted back in September of last year on Orient Beach, once the island’s prime tourist destination, are still visible but the place is slowly coming back to life. Tourists are returning and small businesses have sprung up here and there.
Most importantly, the beach is in good shape. It is wide – and white. Most of the beach lovers are on the far end in front of the now defunct clothing optional resort Club Orient. The characteristic yellow parasols give the beach its sunny outlook. Way back from the beach a bar has been established.
Near Orient village, heavy equipment operators are working on the reconstruction of Bikini Beach for Sindex Tours that obtained a building permit for the construction of close to 137 square meters (see photo above). Bikini Beach will be set further back from the high water line as well. Further down the beach, work is also underway to rebuild other beach bars and restaurants but the way it looked on Tuesday it could take some time before these jobs are finished.
Months ago, when there was no activity whatsoever on the destroyed and deserted beach, a little green cabin sprung up right next to Pedro’s, a bar that is still completely in ruins. It was the initiative of Luis, a South American who sells pareos and swimwear.
In front if his cabin a local man sits in the sand, displaying some handicraft, but he does not want to be photographed, unless I give him 5 dollars. Unfortunately, I went to the beach with empty pockets, so that picture did not come about.
Just behind Luis’ pareo and swimwear cabin is the beach bar and restaurant Chez Leandra; further down a small company is renting out jet skis.
The return of several beach vendors – peddling hats, pareos and other odds and ends – indicates that Orient Beach is now again attractive for business as well.
Two American tourists, camping out under an improvised tent, said that they are happy to be back in St. Maarten, though they had expected more people on the beach.
Why not go to the Club Orient Beach? “Nah, they’re all naked there. We don’t want to go there,” was the reaction.
Photo caption: Chez Leandra is back with an improvised beach bar. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Photo caption: A destroyed excavator rests in the sand near The Palms. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Photo caption: A small operation but still jet ski rentals are back on Orient Beach. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Photo caption: American tourists enjoy the beach under an improvised tent. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Photo caption: A walk on the beach – it doesn’t get more peaceful than that. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Photo caption: A beach vendor haggles with a potential customer. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Photo caption: This little hut of pareo and swimwear vendor Luis was the first one to return to Orient Beach. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Photo caption: The Palms is still in ruins and has become a platform for graffiti artists. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Top photo caption: The characteristic yellow parasols of Club Orient are back on the beach. Close-by photography on this beach is prohibited. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Orient Bay Beach top tourist attraction desolate disaster area
MARIGOT – The waterfront boulevard in Marigot is not what it used to be anymore after Hurricane Irma hit the place. Now it appears that two of the main attractions on this stretch – the French bakeries Sarafina and Le Divin – will not be rebuilt.
Le Divin has been completely obliterated by the monster hurricane and the debris is still exactly where it landed on September 6. Attempts to locate its owner, and to make arrangements for a cleanup, reportedly have failed so far.
It seems likely that the owner has simply left the island.
A bit further down on the Boulevard de France, French bakery Sarafina has also been wiped out… Click here to read the rest of the special report and to view the before and after pictures.
GREAT BAY – The Summit Resort in Cupecoy is the first fatal victim of Hurricane Irma. After 44 years in business, the resort has definitively closed its doors. A bit further down the road on Cupecoy, the Ocean Club – scene of the most gruesome double murder in recent history, when the seriously disturbed Meyshane Johnson killed Thelma and Michael King on September 19, 2012 – is in such a bad shape that management has announced its closure until further notice.
Summit-owner Bruce Jakubovitz writes in a letter to his timeshare owners that there is “an enormous gap” between the estimated rebuilding costs and the limited insurance coverage and the limited revenue from timeshare and hotel operations.
Each timeshare-owner will receive a pro rata part of the insurance payment. “This is likely to be a low number given the sublimit imposed by our insurance carrier for damages caused by hurricanes,” Jakubovitz wrote.
The Summit Resort opened its doors 44 years ago, in 1973. This is how Jakubovitz describes the damages Hurricane Irma inflicted on his resort; “Some of the Summit’s buildings were flattened completely by the force of Hurricane Irma’s winds. All but one of the Summit’s two-story buildings had their second floors either partially or completely blown off. Our single-story buildings lost roofs and suffered other damage. The pool deck was completely blown away with pieces from it landing by our front entry gate. Our General Manager’s living quarters were destroyed as were the living quarters of our Head of Housekeeping. Our restaurant, bar, reception office, laundry facilities and maintenance building were each either destroyed or heavily damaged as well. There is not a single part of the Summit that has been spared from the destructive force of Hurricane Irma.”
When we visited the Summit Resort on Monday afternoon, general manager Evans was on site and she said that there is another component to the total destruction of the place. “After the hurricane we had about fifteen rooms that were in a reasonable shape. But then the looters came. They kicked in doors and took what they wanted. There was no police around.”
The plan is to clean up the debris. When that is done, the site will be fenced off. All employees have lost their job.
The Ocean Club has announced on its Facebook-page that the resort is closed until further notice and that members will be updated via email.
Photo caption: The Ocean Club in Cupecoy is severely damaged. Photo Hilbert Haar.
Court ruling a delight for timeshare owners
GREAT BAY – The Court in First Instance dealt a severe blow to the Alegria Resort in Beacon Hill to the delight of Andrew Robert and Mary Corbett Stevenson and the Timeshare Owners at Caravanserai Association. The court ruled that Alegria has to respect the rights of the timeshare owners at its resort, under threat of a penalty of $10,000 per week if the company does not abide by the ruling. The court declared it enforceable without delay.
When Alegria bought the Caravanserai Resort at auction in August 2014 it did not take long before timeshare owners received a letter from the new owner (on September 30, 2014) announcing that their timeshare rights had become null and void.
In the past, the Stevenson’s bought four timeshare weeks at Caravanserai – an investment of $74,800. When Alegria voided the timeshare contracts with the argument they were not part of the auction, the Stevenson’s and other disgruntled timeshare owners joined forces in the Timeshare Owners at Caravanserai Association to fight for their rights in court.
The court has now ruled that Alegria is bound by the timeshare contracts and ordered the company to give the Toca-members access to their apartments within ten days, “as soon as the members have paid their maintenance fees upon arrival to Alegria.”
Alegria also has to pay damages the Stevensons incurred from being unable to use their timeshare apartments. The exact damages still have to be properly specified.
Alegria also has to pay all court fees; they amount to almost 6,800 guilders ($3,800).
The court ruled that Kildare properties (the previous owner of the resort) was the seller of timeshare contracts and that these contracts came about through a company called Endless Vacation. Both companies were controlled by Haresh Manek. The court qualified the timeshare contract as lease agreements and noted that Kildare had permission from the bank to enter into these contracts. “Alegria is held to respect the rights of the timeshare owners the way Kildare did,” the court ruling states.
Economist Arjen Alberts in a recent webinar:
By Hilbert Haar
GREAT BAY – “We don’t need more tourists. We need better tourists,” economist Arjen Alberts said yesterday during a webinar hosted by Runy Calmera, the chairman of the Dutch Caribbean Economists Association.
The webinar was followed by viewers in the Netherlands, Haiti, Curacao and Sint Maarten, where the complete economy class of St. Dominic High School followed the event on a large screen.
The webinar was dedicated to Albert’s study that focuses on the question why tourism does not lead to higher labor productivity. Today published an article about this study on January 5. Alberts is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Amsterdam. The peer-reviewed British journal International Development Planning Review (IDPR) published his extensive article about this topic. Yesterday, Alberts elaborated on the issue in terms that are easy to understand.
The study looked at developments in Aruba and St. Maarten. “These are small island tourism economies and they both are always in the top-five in terms of the intensity of the tourism development,” Alberts said from behind a laptop stationed at the Philipsburg Jubilee Library.
The labor productivity question ought to matter to decision makers, Alberts said. “You see the tourism economy growing, but at the same time you see immigration at a high pace. Therefore, that growth has to be shared. If GDP grows by 5 percent but the population grows at the same pace you are actually at a standstill; we are not getting wealthier per capita. You grow in volume, but you don’t produce more per worker.”
The main conclusion of Alberts study is “worrisome” he said during the webinar. “Labor productivity did not increase since the establishment of the tourism economy in St. Maarten. Some people got wealthier, but on average, people did not.”
The tourism-economy model was successful in one respect, but not successful enough, Alberts added. “There was success in terms of the creation of employment for the wider Caribbean and in terms of marketing. On the other hand: the islands have limited space and they are not using it intensively enough. Instead we have done the opposite in St. Maarten: more hotels, using more space, creating crowdedness, instead of using the available space in a more money-yielding way.”
On the business level it is necessary to look at the supply chain, Alberts said. “Most of the hotel-needs are imported, but you want to offer more entertainment and more activities for tourists. You don’t want more tourists, you want a higher yield per tourist.at the moment, those numbers are actually dropping.”
From every dollar earned, the economist pointed out, 80 percent leaves the island for the import of goods and services. “That percentage must be brought down.”
What the industry ought to focus on is experiences instead of more of the same. “You want to create a memorable experience. Back in the day Mullet Bay offered this; Mullet Bay was St. Maarten, but those days are gone. To create a coherent memorable experience parties – public and private – have to work together. Aruba is slightly better at this than St. Maarten though Aruba is also coasting along.”
Alberts said that there is a lot to be gained in the field of services. “St. Maarten could be a regional hub for services, instead of an importer of those services. Why don’t we offer electrical vehicles for rent to tourists? Why don’t we reduce the import of expensive fuel?”
When Calmera asked for an example of an island that does get a batter yield per tourist, the answer was about a place right next door to St. Maarten: Anguilla. “They have built a few very expensive hotels and they generate a lot of income from it. They employ locals, sprinkles with a few immigrants. The labor productivity has increased there.” Another example is Dominica, an island that thrives on eco-tourism.
“There are no examples of islands who converted from mass-tourism back to exclusive,” Alberts said. “But something can be done: St. Maarten should not go further down the road it is currently on. They will slowly have to expand the experience.”
Right now, St. Maarten is heading in the wrong direction. “The island is not different from other tourism-economies,” Alberts says. “Unfortunately, the focus is mostly on marketing for marketing’s sake and the objective is to get as many tourists to the island as possible. It is a short-term approach. You want to go to strategy, an overall view of where the island wants to go is lacking.”
The way the tourism-economy has developed so far, is based on the laissez-faire attitude of the government, the economist observes. “The businesses have shaped the industry and the government just let it happen. We don’t manage the type of investments we need. We don’t need more investments in more of what we already have, we need investments in the quality of what we have. We have to ask ourselves, where do we want to be in ten years? And then we have to start working towards that goal. The focus has to be on investments that add to the positive experience. That way you add economic value.”
Getting back to the import of services, Alberts said that local entrepreneurs have to start producing what the hotels need. The government has to back up the development towards higher quality tourism with human resources.
“Everything depends on it,” Alberts says. “Improve vocational education, we need skills, an approach of lifelong learning. You cannot do the added value thing if your people are not qualified.”
He presents a vivid example of how St. Maarten ought to change its ways: “We have focused too much on producing five roses and selling them for a dollar each, while we should focus on producing one rose and sell it for five dollars.”
The emphasis on quality is driven by something the island does not have in endless supply: space. There is therefore an end to the possible growth in absolute numbers. “We have been running very fast while we actually have been standing still,” Alberts observes. If there is an investment option that would attract more tourists, I would say: don’t do it. We don’t need more tourists, we need better tourists and we need to make more money from the tourists we already have.”
While there is a need for better tourists, St. Maarten is currently going in the opposite direction, Alberts notes. He refers to price dumping in the cruise industry, something Today reported about on Wednesday.
“They are caught in the straightjacket of short-term thinking. But somebody has to take the long-term view,” Alberts said. “We are at the end of what we are able to achieve and we cannot go further down that road. We have to become unique, because if you are unique, you don’t have to compete that much. If you all offer the same thing, you have to compete on price – that is the only thing that matters today.”
TERRANCE REY ABOUT CUBA AND THE INTERNAL THREATS TO ST. MAARTEN TOURISM
AMERICANS WILL TAKE A WAIT AND SEE APPROACH
GREAT BAY – How big a threat is Cuba really to St. Maarten’s economy and when will the effects hit us? Terrance Rey, managing director of several travel businesses like Let’s Travel and Travel Anywhere, Inc. says it will take at least ten years, but that the country should not wait that long before taking action. Marketing is of course the key word and exactly in that field, the island comes up short.
“You have to look first at our strong points,” Rey says in his Let’s Travel office. “What do people find attractive about St. Maarten? We have all the facilities that tourists have at home and they are comparable with what they have back home. I had a client who wanted to go to St. Barth just to see what the attraction of that island is. After a couple of days, he fled back to St. Maarten because he found St. Barth boring, even though it is a perfect island for a particular category of travelers. You go there for quietude, to see and to be seen.”
How does St. Maarten hold up against such a neighbor? Rey: “We are a small island; people are at the airport within an hour. We have beaches, bars and restaurants and we’re not far away from the US. Tourists are back home within a couple of hours.”
“People do not come to St. Maarten for the environment,” Rey adds. “If that were so attractive then islands like Dominica and St. Lucia would be top destinations, but they are not. People come to St. Maarten and they do not mind what some people call our concrete jungle.”
The dangers that are real threats to St. Maarten’s tourism industry are not external, but internal, Rey says. “The situation with the timeshare industry is a big problem. And there is the pollution caused by the landfill. You only need one tourist who claims that he caught something from it and decides to sue. That will have an effect, but you could asphalt the whole island and that would not be a problem. As long as the beaches are accessible, tourists will be happy. If that access is endangered, then we have a real problem.”
Another strong attraction point of the island is the casino industry, Rey says. “People come from other islands to gamble here. That is a real business opportunity.”
No matter what complaints people may have about telecom services and the utilities company, infrastructural St. Maarten is up to par for the tourism industry, Rey notes. “Tourist land here, they get their cell phone, their rental car and they have their entertainment in bars, restaurants, casinos and discos.”
To keep tourists coming, airlift is key, Rey says. “It is a chicken and egg issue. As long as airlines keep flying, tourists will keep coming and as long as tourists keep coming, airlines will keep flying. We must not break that circle. We have to promote the island.”
That St. Maarten hardly ever shows up as a favorite destination in reader surveys from travel magazines and websites is “subjective” Rey says and he refers to what happened after the financial crisis in 2008. “Nothing happened. Our tourism industry grew. In spite of the crash, people kept arriving.”
Rey says that the island ought to cherish its timeshare owners, though the reality is that the government does nothing of the kind. “Our system has not been established to protect the small man. That’s why timeshare owners always draw the short straw, even though they are people with money.”
As an aside, Rey says that he does not understand why people but timeshare anyway. “What are you really buying? Hot air, that’s all, the right to be somewhere for a couple of weeks per year.”
What about that external threat called Cuba? Rey thinks that it will take time for Americans to truly embrace the destination. “On the political level Cuba needs to go through quite some development. It is still possible to get arrested there at random. Before Cuba is a free constitutional state we are ten years further down the road. The majority of Americans will take a wait and see approach.”
The travelers who visit Cuba are curious about the country, Rey adds. “They have been going there from Europe and Canada, but they end up in gated holiday resorts. They do not see a lot outside of the resort, so they are getting a very one-dimensional impression of the country. But the curiosity about the authentic Cuba is there.”
Jet Blue is going to open a service to Havana and charters have been servicing the destination from Florida. “But the occupation grade with American tourists was disappointing,” Rey says. “Most of the passengers were Cuban-Americans.”
However, with Jet blue in the mix, a certain market for Cuba-oriented travel will open. In spite of that, most Americans will be reluctant to go there, Rey says. “The image of Fidel Castro, the revolutionary, is still imprinted in people’s minds. So the first group to go there will consist of people who have strong ties with Cuba – the Cuban-americans who have family there, followed by adventurers and starry-eyed idealists.”
There is however yet another group that is eyeballing Cuba: entrepreneurs. “I have already organized three charters to Cuba for real estate developers and timeshare entrepreneurs,” says Rey, but he thinks that doing business in Fidel’s backyard will be cumbersome at best for years to come.
“The Cuban government wants to keep a big finger in the pie. They want 50-50 business deals and they want to remain in control.”
Like anywhere else, the success of doing business in a foreign country depends on whom you know and on the networks you have, says Rey. “Cuban-Americans will have an advantage, because they have those contacts. The political process will take time. Only when the resorts, the casinos, the timeshare projects and the cruise industry have developed their Cuba-projects will St. Maarten be in danger.”
There is an upside to this story, Rey says. “We have time to react to this situation. We have to create awareness, and we have to do our marketing and promotion. But in the field of marketing the government is not doing anything right now.”
Interview by Mr. Hilbert Haar, managing editor of the TODAY newspaper on St. Maarten, published on the front page of the TODAY newspaper on Tuesday, July 28th, 2015.