LAYING THE GROUNDWORK FOR AN ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE
Famed as a tropic idyll, the palms that shade the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda mask its people’s fixed determination. From the office of the prime minister to the boards that line its quays, the islanders are actively engaged in generating growth. The islands’ beaches – of which there’s said to be one for each day of the year – and its tropical climate have long attracted visitors in search of a paradisaical escape, but under Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s administration the country is keen to prove that these islands are more than a secluded paradise.
The nation’s Tourism Authority insists on its website that “the beach is just the beginning,” and this is beginning to be recognised. Nelson’s Dockyard and Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, attesting to Antigua and Barbuda’s cultural and historical riches, which also include numerous fortifications dating back to its history as a port for the British Empire. Chet Greene, the islands’ Minister for Trade and Culture, talks eagerly about upcoming projects to exhibit their brimming legacy. He tells us of plans for a sculpture park themed on the country’s slave ancestry, and for the raising of at least five slave-ship wrecks from its coastal waters. “They represent not only tourist attractions; they represent our cultural heritage, our identity.”
Minister for Tourism Asot Anthony Michael has three main objectives for growth: “new tourism investments, increased airlift, and the redevelopment of the port and city of St. John’s.” Nor are these goals simply rhetoric:
The expansion of the country’s major international airport, the VC Bird International Airport, was completed in the autumn of 2015. It is the first solar-powered airport in the region, accommodating more than double the 800,000 passengers that passed through the old terminal, and was designed to facilitate growth up to 2.5 million passengers over the next 25 years. Investment in tourism has become the basis for one of
Prime Minister Browne’s most important pledges – namely “to increase the islands’ hotel availability from 3,000 rooms to 10,000 in the next 5-7 years.”
The scale of this expansion is not unjustified. The airport’s old terminal was operating at full capacity, and since expansion the tourism industry is experiencing something of a boom. CEO of the Tourism Authority Colin James reflects proudly on his country’s successes: “In 2016, we had 108,000 visitors from the USA. It was the first time we crossed the 100,000 mark.” His pride centres on the Authority’s modern, forward-thinking approach to marketing the islands: “People search for vacation experiences and book them online, so we have been a part of that in a very meaningful way. We are one of the stronger partners of Expedia, for example, in the region.”
In expanding the port, too, much has already been accomplished. The harbour has been dredged and the pier extended in order to accommodate the Quantum class of cruise ship, and work on a new fifth berth is underway which will accommodate the larger Oasis class. Senator
Marie Claire Hurst, Chairman of the Port Authority, works with an awareness of the significance of these advances for Antiguans in general: “When the first Quantum class vessel came in, I would equate it to a Carnival. The people here understand the importance of this kind of development.” Over 6,000 passengers travel on each Oasis class ship – an exciting prospect for tourism in Antigua.
On the other side of the island of Antigua is Falmouth
Harbour, the country’s only designated megayacht marina. Servicing the extravagant yachts of the super-rich, it too is under constant development. General Manager Robert Reis makes sure of this: “Every year we make a major improvement. About 60-70% of our business is repeat business, so we try to make their experience an enjoyable one.” The marina has been improved year on year to become a facility fitting for the wealth
and glamour it accommodates. Reis welcomes Minister Asot Michael’s upcoming marketing plan for yachting: “He’s approved a proposal for a major campaign to promote Antigua as a yachting destination, and now it’s a matter of finding US$2 million to do it.”
The benefits of Antigua and Barbuda’s redevelopments are not confined to the tourism industry. Expansion and modernisation of both port and airport are intended to facilitate the country’s conversion into a commercial hub for the region. The islands’ position at the northern tip of the Eastern Caribbean offers important geostrategic advantages. Senator Hurst speaks of the exciting commercial benefits that redevelopment of the port will offer: “Our location affords us the opportunity to tranship to as far as Africa, and for cheaper.” With this potential in mind, plans have been made to upgrade the port’s cargo terminal and introduce a logistics park, opening the door to private investment and ensuring absolute operational efficiency.
Following improvements, Port Manager Darwin
Telemaque sees nothing holding the country back from its own lofty aspirations: “We are well-placed within the archipelago, being very central. With this position, and the combination of the best airport and the best container terminal in the region, the place to do business has to be Antigua and Barbuda.”
In line with its ambitions, the Port Authority, led by Telemaque and Senator Hurst, works tirelessly to advance the port and the country with it. It has led negotiations for an historic agreement with Guatemalan company Odepal, which is tasked with construction and operation of Guatemala’s ‘inter-oceanic corridor’; a facility to rival the Panama Canal in the transportation of crude oil, foodstuffs, and other materials. It is the first time the port will be linked directly to Central America, South America, and Africa.
Antigua and Barbuda’s potential as a logistics hub, as Telemaque mentions, is not limited to the port. Its airport, newly renovated, also brings exciting new opportunities. Stanley Smith, CEO of the Airport Authority, foresees similar benefits: “Antigua is a natural feed for airlines coming from North America and Europe to take passengers and cargo to the rest of the region.” He adds that his Authority’s plans for development are not limited to the international airport on Antigua, but on developing in Barbuda as well: “We are looking to develop a small airport in Barbuda which could handle at least Category C aircraft, the lowest of which would be a 737.”
Work on the new international airport is long finished, but none in the country is resting on his
laurels in realising its transformation into the hub it might become. The Prime Minister himself has led delegations to China and the UAE and, as Antigua’s Non-resident Ambassador to China Brian Stewartyoung tells us, led “very productive discussions with airlines such as Emirates.” The Ambassador sees great importance in tapping into the Chinese market in order to expand on the islands’ sources of investment and tourism, and goes on to outline the benefits of such a partnership: “A synergy could develop between that region, through Dubai, with flights connecting with Antigua. That would open up opportunities for greater Chinese movements because they would not be concerned with visas that would be necessary to go through Canada, the UK, or the US.”
Ambassador Stewart-young is also CEO of Global Bank of Commerce, and speaks proudly of the financial infrastructure already in place to support the investment and tourism he is keen to promote in these new markets: “We established an international processing centre for VISA and Mastercard which is even connected to China Unionpay, so it is already in a position to accommodate Chinese visitors.” Notable in the Ambassador’s discourse, in both his public and private functions, is his commitment to advancing Antigua and Barbuda and its people. “You have to be able to live as one with the community,” he says. “We must continue to ensure that the indigenous sector remains viable, otherwise our region will be dependent on foreign banking services directed from offices externally, which poses a serious risk to the local economy.”
This sense of pride in serving the community is woven deeply into the fabric of Antigua and Barbuda’s society. State Insurance Corporation, initially established as a department of government, experienced explosive growth in its infancy and now generates well over US$14 million annually, but has not lost sight of its initial purpose. General Manager Lyndell Francis Butler believes this is what sets State Insurance apart: “We were established to provide affordable insurance for middle and lower-class incomes in Antigua, and we have done that successfully over the years.” The company has introduced a pioneering medical package to its portfolio, making medical cover affordable to thousands of the islands’ citizens, and will insure up to 1,200 homes to be built under a new government initiative. Chairman Barry Knight’s aspirations are as much for his country’s people as they are for his company’s advancement: “I want to see every home in Antigua carrying life insurance and health insurance. That would be a good day.”
Property insurance is proving to be one of the
most promising areas of the Antiguan market for
State Insurance’s competitors, but Scott Kelsick,
CEO of Kelsick Insurance, cites a different reason: “The CIP is doing well, so we are seeing more movement [in property].”
The CIP, or Citizenship by Investment
Programme, has been central to Antigua and Barbuda’s success. The programme, as its name suggests, offers Antiguan citizenship to those who invest in the country. Modelled on those of neighbouring countries, it has since surpassed all others to become the leading programme of its kind in the region. Its success stems in large part from the attractiveness of Antigua and Barbuda’s passport, which offers visa-free travel to 134 countries and is the only passport in the region to offer visa-free travel to Canada.
Dominique D’aloia, founder and CEO of Paradise Properties and a resident on the island for over 30 years, hails the CIP as a “great leap.” She adds that the Browne administration is “doing everything that needs to be done to bring the island into a flourishing time.” Paradise
Properties is certainly seeing the benefits, capitalising on their deep knowledge of the local real estate market to service buyers coming into the country.
Prime Minister Browne boasts of investments “north of US$3 billion,” thanks in large part to the
CIP, but property is not the only area in which agencies like State Insurance, Kelsick Insurance
– a self-described “niche player offering a more personalised insurance” – and the long-standing
Brysons Shipping & Insurance stand to gain. Marine insurance still plays a large role in the Antiguan market, and with redevelopments and expected growth in this sector in years to come it is sure to grow. Brysons, according to Managing Director Patrick Ryan, “are agents for 95% of the cruise ship liners that come to Antigua and have a long-established relationship with the Florida Cruise and Caribbean Association (FCAA), which most of the ships belong to.” Any growth in this sector will certainly mean growth for Brysons, and opportunities for other players to expand their portfolio into this area as well.
Antigua and Barbuda’s project for growth was comprehensive and ambitious, stretching from developing infrastructure to largescale promotion. It is early, but the country generated more than 4% economic growth in 2016 – a level of early success the Prime Minister himself could not have anticipated. There is still work to be done, but the groundwork is laid for this twin-island nation to become the economic powerhouse of the Caribbean.