St. Kitts sets strategies for advancing tourism

BASSETERRE, St. Kitts -- The sleepy island of St. Kitts will soon awaken to a very new and different world, one in which tourism will play an enormous role.

Tourism minister Dwyer Astaphan outlined goals to exponentially increase arrivals on St. Kitts by building a deepwater port, expanding an existing port, doubling its inventory of hotel rooms, developing infrastructure and attracting airline service to handle an anticipated influx of tourists on the 68-square-mile island.

Astaphan called cruise tourism "a fact of life," and said the new, deepwater Port Zante project in Basseterre could rival Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, the Caribbean's No. 1 cruise port.

Construction of the pier, which would accommodate Royal Caribbean's Eagle Class ships (e.g. Voyager of the Seas), was slated to begin this spring.

North of Basseterre, St. Kitts, is historic Romney Manor, home to the Caribelle Batik Factory where artisans produce brilliantly colored fabrics and prints, a popular souvenir for visitors. Batiks are used in fashions and in accessories. The port, which is being built on 26 acres of reclaimed land, will offer walkways, restaurants, shops and offices, he said.

Three buildings are nearly finished and the government is negotiating with a hotel group to manage a planned marina hotel.

The existing cargo pier in Basseterre is being expanded to accommodate longer vessels, and construction should be completed later this month.

Astaphan said St. Kitts could accommodate up to 7,000 passengers per day and "reach St. Thomas' size in five years if we choose to do so, but it's very unlikely that we will."

Nonetheless, he said that cruise arrivals could nearly double by 2003, when arrivals could "easily" reach 400,000 per year.

Fully 250,000 cruise ship passengers are expected to arrive on St. Kitts this year, an increase from 187,081 in 2000.

The expected jump in cruise arrivals could help offset losses from a double-digit decrease in land arrivals last year, which dipped 18.4% below 1999 figures.

Galleries and boutiques on St. Kitts and Nevis hold on array of local arts and crafts. Shown here are a selection of handmade items for sale. The decreases were due, in part, to damage from Hurricane Lenny, the resulting closure of Four Seasons Resort, Nevis, and an ownership change for Jack Tar Resorts, Astaphan said.

During that time, "there was little emphasis on hotel marketing, which had an impact on our overall visitor figures," he said.

In an effort to turn cruise visitors into returning hotel guests, the island is offering discounted stays to cruise passengers who book subsequent land stays.

New and existing hotels will see a total of $350 million in capital investment. The building of several new properties either is under way or about to begin, Astaphan said.

St. Kitts has no formal cap on hotel development, but the island eventually may offer as many as 5,000 hotel rooms, he said, up from an existing count of about 1,000 units.

Toward that end, the destination is fostering the development of larger, name-brand properties and advocating the conversion of former plantations to hotels. Construction of new, small properties is also planned.

Astaphan said St. Kitts will seek to preserve "our brand image, which is set by the smaller hotels, while continuing to market St. Kitts as an upmarket destination."

Although early indicators for land arrivals in 2001 were less than stellar in December and January, Astaphan expects spring and summer performance to improve as a result of upcoming festivals and special events, such as the St. Kitts International Music Festival.

Astaphan acknowledged that additional airlift will be required to fill these new rooms. He said hoteliers and St. Kitts tourism executives already are speaking to carriers.

The island's airport handles 500 passengers per hour, and a 25-year development plan calls for additional airport construction.

St. Kitts also is "looking into serving as a hub for neighboring islands, such as Anguilla, St. Barts, Antigua, Nevis, Montserrat, Saba, Statia and the British Virgin Islands."

With its relatively low unemployment rate of 5%, St. Kitts will need to attract new employees to work in its tourism industry, Astaphan acknowledged.

The destination is working to create a hotel training school "as a catchment for the entire northeastern Caribbean, to have students come here and learn," he said.

St. Kitts also hopes to attract Kittian expatriates.

"Many of our people work abroad, so we are looking at areas where homes can be built so expats can resettle," he said.

Despite the efforts to first employ St. Kitts' nationals, "it's very likely we will have to allow other people to augment shortages of nationals, which has happened elsewhere in the region," the minister said.

When asked how St. Kitts will preserve its pristine and peaceful image with the advent of such widespread development, Astaphan said, "We will not allow our natural environment and cultural heritage to be degraded by development, because the sustainability of both gives us our branding as a destination."

Officials are "planning very carefully," to prepare for an influx of tourists.

"Our taxi drivers receive training and certificates. We are very serious about ensuring that the physical and social infrastructure can absorb these visitors without trauma or degradation of the environment," Astaphan said.

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