St. Maarten Should Romance Regional Caribbean Shoppers
by Rajesh Chintaman
St. Maarten should be doing more to attract regional Caribbean shoppers.
Large groups of people crowding the corridors of St. Maarten supermarkets and meticulously packing boxes and barrels on the outside are becoming a normal and welcomed spectacle. They chat in melodious Caribbean dialects as they bustle obviously to beat a travel clock. These big spenders and year-round visitors are a major group of shoppers St. Maarten too often overlook.
These shoppers are worth romancing. They are from “sister islands” as far as Dominica, Montserrat and Antigua & Barbuda, Grenada, St. Lucia and St. Kitts & Nevis. Just a glimpse at their boxes and barrels tell the stories of their final destination scrawled in permanent marker: St. John’s Parish, the Gut, Roseau, …
There is no doubt this homogenous group of visitors are here to enjoy St. Maarten’s duty free shopping, an escape from their islands’ high Value Added Tax (VAT) on many items. They come to shop, but they also squeeze in a mini vacation by staying in small hotels, dine in our restaurants, and shop on Back Street and Front Street and, in some cases, visits with family and friends. They are a steady flow of economy boosting visitors who purchase everything from food items, electronics, household items, clothing and even brand name luxury goods such as watches and jewellery.
Observing all of this, the following question comes to mind…
Is St. Maarten doing enough to fuel this money making sector?
St. Maarten Small Properties Association (SSPA) President, Nzinga Lake says, “St. Maarten is not doing enough for our Caribbean brothers and sisters. They spend, from my estimation, more than most traditional stay-over visitors and, definitely more, than cruise passengers. We see them here three to four times a year.”
These regional shoppers stay about three to four days and can easily spend at least US $300 to US $400 a day just shopping and about US $350 alone on hotel stay. They shell out still more cash on car rentals, meals and incidentals.
Lake says it is time St. Maarten bands together. Stakeholders should make it a priority to better facilitate the Caribbean visitor. “We need to make our Caribbean brothers and sisters feel more welcomed in our Friendly Island.”
Lake says St. Maarten is not alone in vying for the attention of these regional shoppers. Several other Caribbean islands (with lower VAT than small Caribbean islands) have woken up to the spending trend and are trying to lure these big, frequent shoppers from around the Caribbean.
Several major United States stores have already spotted the spending trends of these often overlooked Caribbean relatives. Big chain stores are now targeting these shoppers with online shopping, shipping and even delivery schedules.
Focussing on regional shoppers is not sexy enough for our tourism decision-makers.
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of AirStMaarten, Terrance Rey says, “Definitely, more can be done. I posted the idea a couple of years ago that we should offer free flights to St. Maarten. You know how much money this island can make? Caribbean visitors come here and load up boxes and barrels and send them home by boat. However, this is not sexy enough for the attention of our tourism decision-makers and overlooked by many in the business community.”
Airline prices are “a huge hurdle” to many shoppers. Small hotel representative, Nzinga Lake says airline tickets should somehow be subsidized by at least US $150.
We would then see much more Caribbean big spenders, says Nzinga Lake.
These Caribbean visitors are some of our biggest shoppers and spenders. Boutique hotels such as Paradise Inn, Llama Guesthouse, Bute Hotel and Seaview Hotel and others have capitalized on this development.
Paradise Inn, for example, has the advantage of close proximity to several major supermarkets and superstores and is usually solidly booked out by regional shoppers and tourists, who spend a day, a weekend or often at the most an entire week.
Llama Guesthouse is a hub for visitors from St. Kitts and Nevis who arrive by ferry to St. Maarten regularly. One downside for these visitors is that they lose valuable shopping time waiting on Immigration Officials at the dock. The boat often arrives around 5:00am and passengers have to wait some two to three hours for go through the official screening which in itself takes time.
For many of these regional visitors, it is a race against the clock to get everything on their shopping list. Some smart local businesses have learnt this and try to facilitate their needs with delivery to the ferry service at the dock when possible.
We need to make our Caribbean brothers and sisters feel more welcomed in our Friendly Island. – Nzinga Lake
St. Maarten needs to fully embrace its position as a hub for the North-Eastern Caribbean. With this embrace, there needs to be the respect for our Caribbean visitors, who share so many commonalities with the people of St. Maarten.
As they shop, there is some grumble of dissatisfaction about the way they are sometimes treated. Though technically tourists, they don’t fit the perception of the “typical tourist” to some in St. Maarten’s tourism and hospitality sector and can, at times, be treated as a bother than the big spenders that they are.
They are still faced with that unfriendly official, the unscrupulous taxi or gypsy driver who tries to overcharge them and, of course, the “fancy” Front Street store that snubbed them often just based on looks alone.
It is time to show more love to this very essential economy moving group of shoppers, so St. Maarten can add another feather in its cap, the Friendly Island that welcomes regional Caribbean shoppers with open arms and a welcoming heart.
Rajesh Chintaman is an editor at St. Maarten’s main daily newspaper. He is also a freelance writer and an avid volunteer for HIV/AIDS awareness and eradication of poverty. Rajesh Chintaman is a regular contributor to the StMaarten-Info.com Blog, StMaartenNews.com and the new newspaper subscription site, StMaartenNews.net.
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