You have long been a key figure in Antigua and Barbuda politics as you have been in H.E Gaston Browne cabinet for the last 5 years. What are your main priorities in your current role as Minister of Tourism and Investment?
The main goal would be to ensure that the tourism product reaches a certain standard so that it can excel on the world stage and ensure visitors to the island will have the need to return. The good news is that the tourism industry worldwide is increasing and that is positive for us.
2018 was a record-setting year as the two-island state welcomed over one million visitors. Moreover Antigua and Barbuda tourism has seen a 12% increase in stay over visitor arrivals through September. What are the expected figures for 2019 and what are your objectives to keep increasing those numbers in the coming years?
This year, we introduced our summer period, which is the low season here, just as a regular period. We spent a fair amount of money marketing our summer and this is where we came up with #WhatCoolLooksLike. The idea of this campaign goes around the fact that our temperature does not vary much between winter and summer, our summers are actually cooler than the ones in the U.S and in Europe, especially when heat waves are going on. We came up with the #WhatCoolLooksLike campaign, so you have cool weather, cool bargains and we also involved the tour operators to get cool prices. Everything is set around the whole aspect of “Cool” so it is cool to be in Antigua during summertime. We also engaged our hoteliers and got them to agree to guarantee the nights. If you travel to Antigua for seven nights and after two nights you have to leave because there was a threat of a storm, your five nights are guaranteed and you will be able to use them on a future trip. We convinced the hoteliers that if a visitor left after five nights knowing that their two nights are guaranteed, they will come back not for two but seven more. On the contrary, if they left and had no reassurance to come back, they would not be attracted to return in the first place and secondly they would leave with a negative impact and would take it to social media with dissatisfied remarks. We used this approach and got great results, we also arranged with the utility company to give them discount on their rates if the hotels stayed open. The whole idea is to boost summer tourism as much as possible so that the island does not shut during that period.
Antigua welcomed 792,873 cruise visitors last year and you recently signed a ten-year agreement with President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, Michael Bayley, which will see increased cruise passengers visiting Antigua and Barbuda’s ports. What opportunities are you seeing in the cruise industry and how would you like to develop them?
We have a partnership with Global Ports Holdings (GPH) of which Royal Caribbean Cruise lines is also a partner. They will upgrade the cruise port and build shops and cafes close to it. This project will be done at their expense. This partnership will guarantee more visitors coming in by cruise ship because Royal Caribbean is the single biggest cruise line, moreover, they tend to carry the more affluent passengers so there is more disposable income per passenger compared to other cruise lines. Furthermore by doing this development, a number of other cruise lines are now interested in working with us and adding our islands as a destination for their passengers. We are spending about $85 Million to expand the port in order for us to be able to handle bigger ships, and will be upgrading our facilities. In addition, Royal Caribbean is committed to spend $100 Million on a facility at the Fort James beach, it will be called the Royal Caribbean Day. One of the spin offs from developing the cruise market, is that the cruise lines want to also come in and invest. Furthermore, we have managed to put aside $5 Million as part of the deal in order to lend that money to local entrepreneurs, as when the tide rises, all the boats must rise. We have created opportunities through bank loans for young entrepreneurs with great ideas. We passed in April last year, an act called the Licenses and Standards Act 2019 in order to ensure that all businesses have licenses and operate to the highest standards. One bad review on social media hurts the whole island, we have to make sure world class standards are used everywhere.
You have an US $80 million exclusive 30-year concession agreement with Global Ports Holdings (GPH) to manage cruise port facilities and operations in the country. Please tell us about the importance of this agreement and how will the country benefit from it?
Royal Caribbean has a 50% partnership with GPH for the cruise port. GPH is the largest cruise operator in the world. The level of expertise that they bring will take Antigua and Barbuda’s cruise industry to a new level. Apart from the fact that more visitors will come in, this agreement brings opportunities for taxi operators, vendors, small entrepreneurs and tour operators which will bring more benefits to them.
Two hospitality giants, the Rosewood and Waldorf Astoria are opening resorts on the island, hospitality projects are going on in Barbuda, together with an increase on the numbers of weekly flights coming from the U.S. Can you please tell us about future infrastructure projects in the tourism sector?
The project in Barbuda is from Robert De Niro and he is pushing ahead with it. It has already started; they are clearing the land and have already built offices for their people. The financiers came to Antigua and met with the Prime Minister and myself, they went to look at the property and they have approved the financing. The project will start in the first quarter of 2020. Rosewood should start sometime next year and the Waldorf Astoria is expected to open in 2023.
Why is Antigua and Barbuda so attractive for such big international brands, from the U.S in particular? How vital are those investments for the country and for other big names wanting to come in?
There are several factors; the first one being is that our product offering is being updated and upgraded. The old Royal Antiguan is now the Royalton Hotel. They first had 250 rooms but they are now going to add another 250. Secondly, if you come to the Caribbean, Antigua has the best safety record in the region, we ensure that we keep our crime level rates down, which is positive not just for the visitors but also for our locals. Thirdly, the proximity to Miami is a benefit, it is just a three-hour flight, we also get daily flights from other U.S cities. Finally, we have very good teams in the U.S marketing our country. All of these factors put together ensure that we have outstanding results.
Tourism dominates Antigua and Barbuda’s economy, accounting for nearly 60% of GDP and 40% of investment. Besides Tourism, what other sectors offer significant opportunities for trade and investment and which incentives does Antigua and Barbuda offer to its trading partners that makes it more appealing than its neighboring countries?
We cannot compete worldwide when it comes to manufacturing, as our population is too small and not competitive enough from a price perspective. What we have done, is that we have used tourism to expand, we now have sports tourism, culture tourism, medical and wellness tourism. We have brought the headquarters of the West Indies Cricket board to Antigua. We are looking at many avenues in order to bring different types of tourists to the island. What also works with tourism is the whole aspect of the Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP). Our CIP is the most rigidly run in terms of due diligence. We work hand on hand with the U.S, the Canadians and the Brits. We cannot ensure that the people applying will get their citizenship’s in one month or three months because we want to ensure that the due diligence process is well done and we are not prepared to compromise on it. Another important factor that we have put in place is the mandatory minimum 5 days visit to Antigua within the first five years of getting the citizenship. This differentiates ourselves from other countries in the region which do not require that. It has been very positive for us as high net worth individuals come and visit the country and they like it so much that they want to buy a home or build a business.
Antigua and Barbuda has become the first English-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere to implement the Green Fins initiative to protect coral reefs. Why is this initiative so important to you and what other steps have you taken in order to protect the environment as well as Antigua and Barbuda’s waters?
It is essential to us as the majority of visitors come to the country for our sea, beaches and the sun. Secondly, we need our coral reefs to protect our beaches, if the coral reefs die our beaches will not survive. Coral reefs work as a barrier against the waves so they break it up and protect the beaches. We are currently working on marking coral reefs in order to protect them. They also bring fish and that again attracts tourists. We have a beautiful underwater scenery and unbelievable fish life. Sailing is an activity we have been promoting a lot lately.
What other policies is the government putting into place in terms of ocean management?
We want 30% of our ocean footprint to be in a protected area and ensure that no overfishing is being practiced. We have also banned single use plastic bags and Styrofoam products.
Antigua and Barbuda has strong bilateral links with the United States and especially Florida. The U.S market saw an 8% increase in arrivals last year. What is the role that the US and Florida could play to further their relations with Antigua & Barbuda?
We need to have a good relationship with Florida and the U.S as it is our largest trading partner. We have an important trade deficit as we import pretty much all the products you will find on island. We do not export much besides some goods and services. It is very important to ensure that we can create a balance and one of the ways to do it is through tourism. As most of the trade is done with the U.S, it gives North American businessman strong incentives to come and invest in Antigua & Barbuda. Moreover, Antigua is in close proximity to the U.S, it is a beautiful island and it is an easy set-up to run a business in the country. I would invite North American investors to invest in the tourism industry as they would cater for their own market as over 40% of our visitors come from the U.S. with a 12.5% increase of stay over arrivals from the US last year.
You joined the Labour Party in 1984, and the Prime Minister Lester Bird to the Senate appointed you in 1995, where you served until 2004. Followed by Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in June 2014 and you are now Minister of Tourism and Investment. You are also member of the Lions Club of Antigua, an NGO and the founder of the Cedar Grove Primary School Enrichment Fund. What do you feel most proud of in your personal life?
My family; my wife and my three sons. I say that because it is very difficult for politicians to keep their family together so that would be my greatest accomplishment. If I had to choose between my family and my politics, I would leave politics.
What is your final message for Miami Herald readers who consider Antigua & Barbuda as a potential tourism destination?
Antigua is a safe place, we have an high number of new properties and hotels on the island. The Best Western will probably open in the first quarter of 2021, Hyatt is also coming in, and construction will start no later than the first quarter of 2020. Antigua has 365 beaches, more than any other Caribbean island, that in itself is a key attraction. In terms of investment, we will offer foreign investors the best returns on investment, as we are the fastest growing economy in the region. Airlift from the U.S is on the increase, we have added 500 rooms this year and within the next three years, we are going to add another 2.000 rooms. Antigua is the place to be, do come and pay us a visit.