The partnership between Dutch and French tourism officials on the binational Caribbean island of St. Maarten/St. Martin is solid, although some logistics and strategies still remain to be ironed out, according to the parties involved.

Everything is now done jointly -- the promotion, advertising and marketing highlight both sides of the island, said Alex Richards, tourism director, St. Martin.

His colleague and counterpart for St. Maarten, Regina La Bega, agreed.

Its one island with two international flavors, and thats the bonus were highlighting, La Bega said. Our visitors can experience two cultures, cuisines, heritage and customs on one island in the same visit. We are unique in the Caribbean in that respect.

With new properties coming on line, including the Westin St. Maarten (the former Dawn Beach resort) next February; the Radisson St. Martin, formerly Le Meridien, in December; and several condominium and villa projects, the island will offer more than 4,000 rooms in all categories.

While visitor numbers for the first quarter remained fairly flat, according to La Bega, the summer tourism promotion of Pay for 5, Stay for 7, coupled with the annual SummerFest event held in the last week of July, should boost the islands off-season numbers.

While La Bega attributed the flat first-quarter visitor statistics to room rate increases last winter and fewer rooms in the rental pool, both she and Richards were pleased with the airlift picture.

Even during the summer period, we have 28% more seats than we had last summer, Richards said. And we are seeing a lot more intra-Caribbean travel as well.

The island welcomed 1.4 million cruise ship passengers last year and expects to match that figure this year.

EasyCruise plans to homeport the 170-passenger EasyCruiseOne on the island from December to May, and will offer one-week cruises to neighboring islands, but the schedule will call for the ship to arrive and depart St.Maarten/St. Martin twice in seven days. 

The ship will be in port 15 hours each time, which will greatly benefit our shops and restaurants, Richards said.

The U.S. passport issue is a big concern, according to both directors. Even as Jan. 1, 2007 -- the deadline by which all U.S. citizens returning from the Caribbean must have a valid passport to re-enter the U.S. -- looms closer, surveys indicate that high numbers of U.S. visitors to the entire region, including St. Maarten/St. Martin, still do not possess passports.

Were distributing flyers at the airport and cruise terminal, weve posted reminders on our Web site, and were working with our tour operator partners to get the word out, Richards said. Still, we know that the message regarding the deadline and its implications will not reach all our visitors and potential visitors in time.

Police on patrol

Addressing another recent controversy, La Bega said that the widely reported gay-bashing incident against two U.S. cruise ship visitors last month on the Dutch side of the island, was deplorable but was an isolated event.

The attacker did turn himself into the police, she said.

As a precaution, however, a new police unit in Philipsburg now deals solely with petty crimes and harassment.

We have a paid police force and a volunteer unit, but all volunteers now are paid, La Bega said. This is a pilot project in Philipsburg, where 20 officers on foot patrol cover the main tourist areas, day and night.

They act as a presence, she added. If it works well, the program may be expanded to other areas of the island.

In Marigot in St. Martin, the number of gendarmes, as police officers are referred to in French, also has increased.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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