Make the Poor PayMay 15, 2003
Mega yachts docked in St. Maarten's Simpson Bay lagoon are being subsidized by small time cruisers
A little while ago we received an e-mail from our friends John and Melodye Pompa on "Second Millennium" about a proposed fee increase for yachts visiting the Dutch island of Sint Maarten. John and Melodye are long time cruisers who co-ordinate the daily Caribbean Safety and Security SSB radio net. St. Maarten's duty free status has attracted a lot of development to the island. It's also attracted a lot of cruisers because everything's relatively cheap. We went broke there a couple of years ago saving so much money at all the boat chandleries. John and Melodye were alarmed by a proposal to assess a new cruising fee based on boat size. It cost us all of about two dollars to clear in and out of the island when we were there in 2001. According to the new schedule, however, a 46 foot yacht (arguably, the average size nowadays) would be assessed $60 per month to anchor or dock in St. Maarten waters. John and Melodye were heading up an ad hoc committee of concerned people urging cruisers to protest the proposal.
We just received some back copies of "Caribbean Compass" magazine when we picked up our backlogged mail in Ottawa a few days ago. Apparently, despite the best efforts of John and Melodye and others, the controversial fee schedule is now in effect. The latest issue of the magazine is filled with letters from cruisers suggesting a boycott of the island. One of the biggest bones of contention is the fact that the official rationale for the new fee is to pay for a $2.2 million project to widen the bridge entrance to Simpson Bay lagoon. The widening is to accommodate mega yachts seeking access to the luxury marinas inside the lagoon. We're talking REALLY big mega yachts here. Behemoths a mere 150 feet long could squeeze through the old bridge opening. Obviously, the expensive bridge work is of no benefit to your typical mom and pop cruiser.
With the best of intentions, the economic threats made by John and Melodye and the other boycotters may, if anything, have confirmed the decisions of the St. Maarten officials. John and Melodye argue that the lost income to St. Maarten due to yachts boycotting the island will be $1,000 per boat per month (based on average expenditures "for groceries, boat parts, transportation, etc."). Assuming 300 fewer boats over a four month cruising season, that adds up to a $1.2 million loss - impressive if cruisers were the only source of income to the island. What the protesters fail to mention - and what the government officials surely know - is that most of the island's income comes from visitors who are substantially better heeled than the stereotype frugal sailor. Eight hundred thousand cruise ship passengers visit St. Maarten each year, leaving behind $80 million. The island boasts over 2000 hotel rooms to accommodate vacationers arriving by air. The average peak season rate is more than $300 per room per night. Even if we assume a 50% vacancy rate, this means that airborne holidayers pay more cash for hotel accommodation alone in four days than the entire cruising community spends in total over the whole season. The sorry truth of the matter is that St. Maarten doesn't need the cruiser who balks at paying 60 bucks a month to visit the island when a much larger number of tourists are paying more than that each time they sit down for lunch.
We're very sympathetic to John and Melodye's cause. We hate spending more money on anything, especially if it's to finance something that doesn't benefit us. But we're not at all surprised by the actions of the St. Maarten officials. The cruising fees in Grenada, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas all recently went up. It now costs a whopping $100 to cruise the Bahamas. The fee hike has done little to deter cruisers from visiting the Bahamas, however - the attendance at the George Town cruising regatta this year was as good as it's ever been. It might not seem fair, but it does make economic sense for cash strapped governments to hit up cruisers for as much as they can. And they know it.