Although Richard “Ricky” Skerritt, St. Kitts’ minister of State in the Ministry of Tourism, Sports and Culture, is delighted to announce that most objectives for 2007 have been met, he will not lay the “wicket” down just yet, months after hosting the Cricket Cup.
In an exclusive interview with eTurboNews, Minister Skerritt, the first full-time West Indies Cricket Team Manager from 2000-2004 prior to his ministerial appointment, said the match is not over yet. He explains in the below interview.
eTN: Did the World Cup Cricket not do the trick of bringing up tourism numbers after the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) hit St. Kitts?
Minister Richard Skerritt: We actually saw a significant impact in the first few months of the current year. Travel from the US was down 7 percent in January, then 5 percent in February. It would have gone down in March, had it not been for the Cricket Cup we hosted. A lot of our own people living in the US came for the event. Around 3000 flew in to St. Kitts for the Cup. The point is, the WHTI has clearly hurt St. Kitts and Nevis in the first quarter and carried on into the second quarter of 07. By the summer, arrivals from the US were back to last year’s level. Speeding up passport processing helped in a way. However, we still went through some difficulty. It cost us some visitor expenditures that we have to live with unfortunately.
eTN: How did you overcome the dip?
Skerritt: No, we did not overcome it. It hit us. We just kept doing what we do and ensure we give guests a good experience so that they keep coming back. Fortunately, we have shifted to the luxury end of the market. Guests of the luxury tier have passports anyhow. They are destination travelers looking for islands like this. We’re fortunate that with this stage of development and manmade resources, we can sustain the balance that continues to attract visitors.
Where the WHTI hurt us most was in the big groups, meetings and incentives – most of whom are travelers without passports. Many found it easier to stay in the US mainland, or fly to Puerto Rico or USVI – the markets competing with us in the groups business.
eTN: What can you do to lure this business back?
Skerritt: It’s not about luring them back (as some of them have not been here before) as much as what we are doing to compete for this niche. We lost business to the competition because we suffered the setback of the initiative. Today, we double our efforts and expose our assets through familiarization trips with meeting planners and financial service companies operating in our target areas. Though we are new, we are building the market – competing on value, not on price! It’s not always easy to convince a buyer or package the intangibles. One has to visit to believe what is here in St. Kitts. Hence, we continue to tell the story.
eTN: So who is the big target? What’s the goal after Cricket?
Skerritt: The biggest market is the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Traditionally, they are the largest supplier of visitors to St. Kitts and Nevis. Fifty-five percent of our traffic comprise of Americans. The US is the biggest component with the Diaspora as repeat guests, followed by 45 percent from the UK, Canada and the Caribbean combined. Caribbean’s share is about 23.5 percent of total, generated from neighboring islands through sports and MICE tourism. St. Kitts’ Music Festival in June and the Carnival in December are biggest draws for the Eastern Caribbean market. In November, American Airlines’ inaugural non-stop flight to St. Kitts from New York’s JFK marked the climax of activities for the year. It will be followed by Delta Airline’s service from Atlanta starting February 16. We will start working on marketing this service, although the New York gateway catered by AA will not be neglected.
eTN: Is there life after sugar and room for growth after the death of the crop?
Skerritt: We found that there is demand for what we’re trying to produce. Since the sugar industry ended two years ago, some 20-25 percent of people were left unemployed. They represent around 300 people (the elderly, less skilled, and locals who just don’t want to move from established residences). They are going through some difficulties, struggling hard coming to grips with the reality of the situation. It’s still an ongoing process. The government has been giving them support in terms of health, education and social infrastructure. We’re giving jobs to the island. Tourism is going to ‘cultivate’ the main sugar belt area, the Kittitian Hills in 2008, the Golden Lemon and other hotels in and around the now-defunct plantations. What is more of a concern was the short-term effect, from the previous two years, that made life difficult for our people. We believe strongly in spreading tourism as widely as possible in the forest and other remote areas, and identifying those who need jobs today.