Our economy is doing relatively well despite the many obstacles we face as a small island state.
There are several problems that beset our economy.
These include poor terms of trade. For instance, in the global community, and according to World Trade Organization rules,
Antigua and Barbuda with a population of approximately 100,000 people and a Gross Domestic Product of $1 billion in exactly the same way as the United States with a population of 350 million and an economy of $13 trillion.
We get no special and differential treatment in trade, despite our smallness and our remoteness as an island-state. This has led to trade disadvantages with our main trading partner, the United States.
The US enjoys an annual trade surplus with our small country of hundreds of millions of dollars. The same is true in relation to trade in goods with Europe and Canada.
So we are providing revenues and jobs to North America and Europe.
Official development assistance or aid to our country has also dwindled. Our eligibility for aid is measured by our per capita income and we are regarded, on that basis, as a ‘Middle Income Country’, because we have vibrant trade unions and a commitment to better standards of living for our people.
So, in a sense we are being punished for doing well for our people.
Additionally, we are disqualified for access to soft loans from the world’s international financial institutions. This forces us to borrow on commercial terms to finance infrastructural and economic development projects.
We also have to borrow on commercial terms to rebuild and refurbish after natural disasters, such as hurricanes. So we have a high debt to GDP ratio.
I am pleased to say that my Government has brought it down from over 100% when we took office three years ago, but it is a struggle when revenues are curtailed by poor terms of trade, little or no official development assistance and no access to soft loans.
Despite all these obstacles, we grew the economy by 6.9% last year – the fastest growth in the Caribbean, and we expect further growth this year.
So, despite the odds, we are strengthening the economy, reducing debt, creating new employment, and improving living standards based largely on the performance of the tourism industry.
- As the Minister of Tourism. How important is the Tourism sector in Antigua and Barbuda. How well has the sector been performing in 2016-2017
Since the nineteen sixties when we transitioned from an agricultural economy based on sugar and cotton, Tourism and travel has been the lifeblood of Antigua and Barbuda’s economy.
Fifty-three per cent of our workforce is either directly or indirectly employed in Tourism and its related Services. Investment in our tourism product is therefore critical to our economic survival and long-term sustainability. The industry contributes almost 60% of our Gross Domestic Product.
We have attracted more than $3billion US dollars in investment in the past three years, as we have been able to effectively market our destination as a sound one for Foreign Direct investment.
We have over 12 properties that are currently either in construction or set to begin soon, with announcements on the horizon for more.
Just this year, for example we broke ground on a Marriott Autograph collection luxury boutique property that is set to open within 18 months and, the very first Waldorf Astoria in the Caribbean.
We will shortly be opening in October the new 79 room Hodges Bay Resort and Spa in time for our peak season – all these projects ultimately help us in diversifying our product offering and improving the services available to our visitors.
This dynamic growth is certainly gaining interest from around the world, and helping us attract new investors and capital.
Antigua and Barbuda has been creating a buzz in the international Investment and Tourism sectors, which in itself has been a catalyst in attracting capital and interest from prospective high net-worth investors from around the world.
This of course fits within my Ministry’s three main objectives: new tourism investments, increased air and sealift and the redevelopment of the Port and City of St. John’s. Within our five-year plan we hope to double the current room stock of about 3,000, and complete the redevelopment of the downtown City and Port of St John’s to return it to the marquis status it once enjoyed in the cruise industry.
Even within this 5-year goal, our aim is to surpass the 1 Million targets for cruise passengers by 2020.
Overall, Antigua and Barbuda is performing at the same as the overall region in tourism arrivals and we are redoubling our effort to at least match arrivals for last year 2016 – which was a record-breaking year for stay-over tourism arrivals for Antigua and Barbuda when we welcomed over 265,000 visitors to our shores with the largest number ever from the USA with some 108,000 thousand arrivals.
This year we will be introducing significant increases in airlift from Canada, Europe and other markets to help us achieve our goals.
We are already on path to break our cruise arrivals record. With the extension of the Heritage Quay Pier in December of last year – that allows us to welcome the Quantum class vessels – and we’ve had an incredibly robust cruise season.
Additionally we became the home port for the European cruise company – Pullmantur – that offered Antiguans and Barbudans – and those flying in around the region – the opportunity to join on cruise ships here for the first time.
Between our air arrivals and sea arrivals, with exponential growth in airlift and room capacity on the island – it is an incredibly dynamic and successful period of time for the tourism industry, which is good news for the economy of Antigua and Barbuda.
- What are the main reasons why travelers choose A&B as their next holiday destination?
Antigua and Barbuda is laser focused on providing exceptional experiences for each and every visitor. This must be the top priority for each and every single Antiguan and Barbudan for our tourism industry and for our nation in order to succeed.
Beyond the level of service and friendliness of our people, visitors are choosing Antigua and Barbuda for everything we can offer them: 365 stunning white and pink sandy beaches, a variety of accommodation options including the best in class in luxury and all-inclusive, mouth-watering dining options, and exciting activities that include sailing, kite surfing, snorkeling, hiking and more.
Our destination is also so easy to get to with direct same day air links from the major cities of North America and Europe. The convenience of air travel is a major draw, and when that is coupled with our ideal weather year-round, and spectacular beaches it makes for a very compelling proposition for your next vacation.
These attributes all play a strong part in why Antigua and Barbuda was named ‘Most Romantic Destination’ in the Caribbean for two years running at the prestigious World Travel Awards – and named Caribbean Tourism destination of the year by Caribbean Journal last year. All these factors are why people again and again choose Antigua and Barbuda for their vacation.
But, we are not resting on our laurels. We know that tourism is a highly competitive business and the market is dynamic. Therefore, we are constantly looking at new ways in which we can improve our product to attract clients.
And, we know that the key to that, when all is said and done, is the quality of service people receive for their hard-earned money. So, providing quality is our first priority.
- Which are the most important markets in terms of inbound tourism. (Europe vs. the US). What are the country’s initiatives for improving the numbers during off-season months?
I believe that each market is important – it isn’t an either / or situation, but every single market and every visitor is important to us. Every market offers an opportunity in strengthening our tourism industry. Every market also brings its own opportunities – certain markets are known to travel during certain times during the year, and prefer Antigua and Barbuda for different reasons.
In terms of hard numbers, our two most important markets are the US, followed by Europe, including the UK, then followed by Canada and the Caribbean.
The traditional peak season for Antigua and Barbuda, and for the region overall, is December through March – and we are continually striving to drive the tourism economy year-round, or close to it.
Many of our initiatives as a Government include organizing major events to draw in visitors from abroad and across the Caribbean that take place throughout the year. Some examples of this include our world famous Antigua Sailing, Week, West Indies cricket matches and our Carnival, the regional largest summer festival which is celebrating 60 years this year.
Throughout the year we constantly seek to introduce new and exciting events such as the Antigua Barbuda Restaurant Week, The Run in Paradise half Marathon, Antigua and Barbuda Mango and Pineapple Festival, and our Sports Fishing Tournaments to maximize the economic impact of Tourism throughout the entire year.
In addition to scheduling events to draw visitors in, we work with many of the stakeholders on the island to provide packages as incentives, and run digital online campaigns in our various markets to drive awareness of Antigua and Barbuda to help raise visibility of the destination overall, with a push for travel in the off seasons.
Our online travel agents such as Expedia and Trip Advisor are key partners in this strategy.
A recent example of a summer promotion was a very effective outdoor advertising campaign with Saatchi in the UK with big screen destination advertising at the major train stations in London.
Additionally, we are working with our airline partners to keep airlift as high as possible throughout the year as it is critical that visitors have access to reach Antigua and Barbuda easily any time of the year. The Government’s goal is to minimize the effects of the off-season and to drive visitor traffic year-round to Antigua and Barbuda.
- How is the Ministry maintaining a balance between development and sustainability, trying to maintain the natural beauty of Antigua and Barbuda, and at the same time encouraging investors to come and invest in the country?
Antigua and Barbuda has always had a significant part of its product geared toward the higher end of the market, and although we have a wide range of properties we remain focused on diversifying our portfolio – This means we are attracting, resort, luxury, villas, hotel chains, and small boutique properties…. anything that provides an exceptional experience for our visitors.
The luxury end of the market is largely recession-proof, however it is absolutely critical that we maintain diversity in our tourism product by also attracting large brand chains such as The Worldorf Astoria and Marriott that have a strong affinity to our product and come with a loyal customer base.
Our Master plan renovation of our cruise ship piers and facilities along with the revitalization of downtown St. Johns is a key area for development, which will allow us to meet our goal of 1 million cruise passengers by 2020. Significant work had already started to upgrade our cruise facilities to improve the quality of product and service that we offer our cruise guests.
There are long-term infrastructural development plans for both the Cargo and Cruise Ports and City of St John’s. These plans will see significant infrastructural developments to ultimately improve the shopping and landside facilities, which will improve the overall visitor experience.
This being said, developing sustainably is of critical importance and our top priority. Our sustainable tourism program ensures that the overall investment into the energy, utility and communications infrastructure of our nation is done responsibly. Protecting our natural environment and investing in sustainable energy and tourism, is a top priority of our Government.
Antigua and Barbuda has adopted a strategy to create a practical action plan that establishes a clear vision, short-medium-long term objectives and an action agenda follow-up to ensure that Antigua and Barbuda has a completely sustainable tourism program. Our goal is to advance the international cooperation to enable private and public sector investment in the energy sector.
Specifically, we have been upgrading electricity grids, greater energy efficiency, and wind and solar energy development.
The Government enacted the Antigua and Barbuda Renewable Energy Act in 2015 that promotes the progression towards sustainable energy by allowing consumers utilizing renewable energy – such as wind, solar, or biomass – to interconnect into the national grid.
We have also enacted the National Energy Council, which is a multi-sectorial agency bringing together major energy stakeholders in the public and private sectors to review technical and policy issues geared towards Antigua and Barbuda becoming a green energy leader in the Caribbean.
One of the keys to the success of the project is engaging with the community and stakeholders to ensure that they know the importance of sustainability to the future of tourism and the country.
We have embarked upon rolling out an initiative for encouraging more hotel properties to become green globe or other similar type of certification, and designating the entire sister island of Barbuda as a “green island.”
Many of our partners have been fantastic, with many eliminating the use of throwaway plastic cups, straws, and in some cases plastic water bottles.
A project we adopted recently to protect the environment is banning plastic bags where we ran an education program with the public for the launch where residents were given free cloth bags at local grocery stores.
We are the first nation in the region to ban the use of plastic bags.
Doing so eliminates both useless waste as well as protecting our natural environment. This awareness campaign was a success, with everyone having happily adapted to cloth/reusable bags, and our environment, both the local waters and the cleanliness of our twin-islands, benefitting.
This year, 2017, has been designated the UNWTO year of Sustainable Tourism.
We have a calendar of activities to further engage with the local community about the importance of sustainable tourism.
Other initiatives including converting the building housing the Ministry of Tourism to full solar power and the recent installation of a 3 Megawatt solar photovoltaic farm at the new Sir V.C. Bird International Airport.
This makes our new airport one of the most environmentally friendly in the world with 80% of its power coming from renewable sources. We are continuing to invest in solar energy, as it is such an integral source of energy to the future success of our country.
Additionally, we are in the midst of establishing Barbuda as a totally “Green” destination where the island will derive 100% of the needed energy from renewable energy. We are already at an intermediate degree of sustainability, which means that more tourism enterprises are operating sustainably, and more effort is being put forth to conserve the marine and terrestrial areas, that are the intrinsic draw for visitors.
We are confident we can grow Antigua and Barbuda dynamically, and in a sustainable manner so as to maintain our natural beauty and wonder and protect our natural resources so that Antigua and Barbuda will continue to flourish for many years to come.