Lester Bird, Opposition UPP bemoan drop in Antigua's tourism under Gaston Browne

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

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ST JOHN'S, Antigua — Former Antiguan Prime Minister Sir Lester Bird last week lamented the decline in the country's tourism sector, in his contribution to the 2018 b udget Debate in Parliament.

The online Antiguan Newsroom quoted Sir Lester as saying: “We have not placed emphasis on the development of all facets of the products, particularly the accommodation sector. This sector has stagnated and declined.”

Sir Lester, now a senior minister in the ruling Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party led by Gaston Browne, was a long-standing minister of tourism under his revered father, the late Sir Vere Bird Sr.

Another former tourism minister, Harold Lovell, the political leader of the Opposition United Progressive Party (UPP), found common cause with Bird, describing the 12 per cent decline in stay-over arrivals from the United States during 2017 as “a disturbing trend”.

“The US is our number one market and double-digit decreases in arrivals from key states such as New York and New Jersey, which are well- served with airlift, warrant a full investigation. This is a finding that must be immediately reversed,” said Lovell.

Critics here have frequently put the decline in tourism in the context of sustained attacks by Prime Minister Gaston Browne on sections of the hotel industry, including the flagship Sandals Resorts, the island's biggest private employer and foreign exchange earner.

Browne was accused throughout 2017 of frightening off investors in the hotel industry by saying he wants his and other Caribbean governments — under what he terms “entrepreneurial socialism” — to acquire ownership in hotels in their territories, on grounds that they are operating “like a plantation industry”.

“The hoteliers, they are brutal in their requirements. they ask for up to 25 years' concessions on everything, they don't want to pay no taxes, when their tax (exemptions) run out they come back and they insist you must renew it, and when you decide you don't want to do it because you are trying to protect government's revenue, they hold you hostage to fortune,” Browne is quoted in news reports as saying.

Tourism is Antigua's largest industry, accounting for 75 per cent of the island's gross domestic product of $1.5 billion.

Browne's detractors also maintain that the prime minister's unresolved difficulties over bribery allegations in a Spanish newspaper could be hurting the island's image.

The newspaper, El Pais, alleged that Browne received 3 million euros from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which is under international investigation for bribing several leaders to carry out or cover up money-laundering activities on its behalf.

Browne has consistently denied the allegations and sued the European paper for defamation in carrying the original allegation that came from the lawyer of the Brazilian firm.

He said he had since been exonerated by the paper but has so far failed to show proof, despite numerous media requests.

In Parliament last Thursday, Sir Lester compared Antigua with its sister the eastern Caribbean island of St Lucia, noting: “Our tourism has taken a distant second place to St Lucia… Figures from Castries indicate that the country not only welcomes more stay-over visitors but has earned more annually for its economy.

“Our product has stagnated and suffers from inertia or destination fatigue. By this I mean almost every aspect of our sector has stagnated,” Bird said.

At the same time, Bird warned against the “negatives” of mass tourism, arguing that it is better to attract high-spenders. He suggested that the accommodation sector must be dominated by four- or five-star hotels.

He said that Antigua needed an accommodation capacity of 6,000 rooms by 2025 and increase of 2,500 rooms in the next seven years, with at least five brand name hotels under a tourism master plan “with a focus on identifying where these rooms will be constructed”.

The UPP's Lovell, in agreeing with Bird, charged that little had been done “to develop the tourism infrastructure and to adequately increase and improve the quality of the room stock”, the newspaper reported.

Lovell said that the tourism numbers recorded in 2017 were not very different to the records of 2009, noting that room stock and airlift to the country might have increased by 20 per cent in the last eight years, but had not translated into a significant increase in arrivals or market share.

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