St. Kitts is a beautiful gem located in the Caribbean island chain. It twinkles with the magic of a Caribbean that time forgot - still relatively untouched by the long fingers of globalisation, offering a different Caribbean adventure. Spear-heading the islands tourism development is somewhat of a hero.
Hon. Ricky Skerritt headed up the West Indies Cricket team for four years; he is highly regarded by many. Now Hon. Skerritt takes his tactics to tourism. Motivated, determined and high-spirited Ricky gives this exclusive interview to Caribbean Travel News.
We sit in the lobby of the 5-star Marriot located in Frigate Bay. A wide sweeping bay with soft white sand and rolling waves. Not crashing. Rolling. The sea is a dark but vibrant blue. In the lobby I am sat across from Hon. Ricky Skerritt. Ricky has a presence about him, not an intimidating one - calming yet authoritative. The noise of the waterfall feature in the centre of the huge lobby tumbles in the background. We raise our voices a little to talk shop.
I get the ball rolling with the ‘in’ focus across the Caribbean at present, sustainability:
“It is very important that the impact of tourism is felt everywhere in the community. For this reason we want to expand community tourism, take visitors into the community, in a way in which the communities can benefit. It is essential to help empower small entrepreneurs to become better service providers. Making sure projects have a positive impact on the environment, that they enhance the environment, is very important. We can utilise our landscape and natural resources, take care of them, we can take a beach and refurbish it due to hurricane damage - use coastal engineering to improve the quality of our natural resources. We ensure basic issues such as sewage, waste management and general impact of actual physical construction on the environment are kept to a minimum,” answers Hon. Skerritt.
“These are things that our Ministry of Sustainable Evolvement are very conscious of now. We have made mistakes in the past, as all successive governments have, and I think we have improved the awareness. We have a sustainable tourism project regionally which our tourism authority is captain to through the CTO. Through this we are pushing the concept of green hotels, we are trying to get hoteliers to understand energy saving and water management and recycling resources. A lot of education is needed. It is very, very important to us. The Prime Minister merged the Ministry of Lands and Ministry of Planning into what is called the Ministry of Sustainable Development - he didn’t use this term by accident. It is a reflection of the governments vision and commitment to sustainable development.”
It is apparent that sustainability is high on the agenda for the country of St. Kitts. By sustaining the natural and cultural resources St. Kitts can harness a product that is made up of many varied and interesting facetes.
Ricky offers an insight into the tourism authorities psyche:
“One of the things that we believe is important for the English market is heritage, our colonial past, our origins, from forced labour plantations right through to the closure of the sugar industry. Right there you are looking at some 250-300 year history. Through the heritage society we have been trying to document as much of our heritage as possible. We have preserved some sites, identified some sites for future preservation, unfortunately we have destroyed some sites as well. Some of it unknown, some of it through mistakes, generally speaking though the heritage of this country is very, very rich. St. Kitts is referred to in some quarters as the historical capital of the Caribbean. For good reason - we must make sure we make better use of that in our tourism model.”
I ponder, St. Kitts - the cultural capital of the Caribbean. From personal insight the island is teeming with cultural sites - from the historic fort of Brimstone Hill, a UNESCO world heritage site, to the square in Basseterre. Its layout is designed on that of the Union Jack and it is the site where plantation owners would trade slaves. All around St. Kitts sit marvellous plantations some old dilapidated sugar mills, others converted into fancy boutique hotels.
What type of market is St. Kitts looking to focus on?
“The aim essentially is for high end, but we will have a mix in St. Kitts. We are not going to throw out what we have, just going to try to continue to improve what we have. In terms of the south eastern peninsula zone for instance, which is a significant zone, this essentially will be a high end product. Down on the west coast we have La Valle Golf Course, Kittitian Heights and Beaumont Park Race Track, all are based on high-end villa residences. Perhaps a second home, all have resort facilities.
“I can say that future projects are going to be essentially high end. We will see hopefully one 4-star all-inclusive. The 3-star properties we have are trying to improve/upgrade but essentially they will be the best that they can be.”
I nudge the boundaries with a hint at who the owner of the all-inclusive may be.
“Sandals? I’m not in a position to say.”
Ricky becomes enthused at the next project, his eyes spark with excitement.
“Auberge (formerly under the project name of Whispering Head) are very much here. They have purchased a very large track of land on the peninsula, including Sand Bank Bay, which is one of the most romantic spots you will see. They have track record of high-end boutique, relatively small, top quality products.”
But just how excited is the minister?
“Very excited. The project is backed by very well resourced financers with a very good commitment to the environment. They are going after a boutique market that needs real high exclusive attention, this is very compatible with our vision for the south east peninsula. Auberge will be a very important player in our future development. The Project is signed, land purchased, the planning is in place, they hope to start by the end of the year and be complete by 2008.”
So what is the deal with the apparent discontent between the two islands of St. Kitts and Nevis?
“This is over played to some merit. More and more, from a tourism perspective, as both islands begin to depend heavily on tourism, business partners and service providers are beginning to understand it makes sense to work together. From a governmental perspective, the tourism authorities have recently undertaken to work more closely together. Really, there are opportunities to add value to the product. If a visitor comes out of the UK and stays in St. Kitts they are actively encouraged to visit Nevis as a day excursion - it adds an opportunity to improve the product. Similarly if a visitor comes and stays in Nevis. It improves the experience and the visitor is exposed to a return option as well.
“Money being spent is being spent in the same economy - what we have here is a single economy between the two islands. There are service providers that support each other. It’s good business to do some stuff together.”
So perhaps the gap between the two islands is closing - in a business sense at least.
Business is blooming:
Business in St. Kitts is blooming. Arrivals from the UK are up 10 per cent (2004 over 2003) but still viewed as relatively small equating to roughly 10000 people arriving from the UK.
“This is relatively small and due to a) limited air lift and b) inadequate marketing. Both of those areas will be addressed over the next few months,” explains Hon. Skerritt.
We wrap things up with the tourism authorities master plan for the next three years.
“Our main aim is to improve the quality of our product, the quality of product delivery. We have an outstanding product, pristine beauty of landscape, the heritage, the diversity of the environment in such a small island, friendly people, significantly improved infrastructure.
“To be able to present this the visitor experience must be flawless, incident free, good value for money. We need to focus on stronger training programs to develop higher quality service. Need to recognise clearly what our brand is and position it correctly in the market and decide which markets we are going to focus on,” enthuses Skerritt.
“I would say the three key areas are going to be: Product delivery, Brand development/brand positioning and on the home front improving, continuing to improve, the organisational abilities/capabilities of our tourism authority, in terms of the way we manage our resources and provide services.”
We close with a smile and a firm hand shake.
With thanks to Hon. Ricky Skerritt.
For more information on St. Kitts visit: www.stkitts-tourism.com