PHILIPSBURG–The country’s fledgling cruise ship homeporting sector and its fragile yachting industry have been dealt what can be described as a deathblow by new immigration requirements for yacht and cruise ship crewmembers that took effect on Saturday and will come to an end with the maritime season.
Yachting and cruise stakeholders were informed of the “temporary policy” that will be “in effect for the duration of the maritime season” via a letter dated February 24. The policy affects visa-restricted crewmembers from both sectors. A significant number of crewmembers are from visa-restricted countries and this has been so for decades.
United People’s (UP) party leader Member of Parliament (MP) Theo Heyliger has expressed “total disbelief” at this move by Government. “This is yet another clear indication that this Government has zero clue about our tourism industry and how fragile our position is.”
Speaking to The Daily Herald about the letter, Heyliger said: “It appears as though no one looked at the efforts and investments made to develop the country’s homeporting sector. The Harbour [Port of St. Maarten – Ed.] is an essential part of our economy, an economy already hurting for the tremendous loss of cruise ships and decline in tourism in general in the past years.”
To now put an impediment to crewmembers transiting in St. Maarten is nothing short of “landing a very hard and connecting blow to our golden goose – tourism,” Heyliger said. “Government needs to make it very clear who they consulted before coming up with the new policy. And, what it considers ‘the maritime season.’”
The policy needs to be rescinded until proper research is carried out, Heyliger added. “Government has financial issues that are clear from the budget and this may be a covert way to drumming up funds for the coffers, but in doing so it appears no one thought of how the economic contributions from crewmembers will decline,” he said.
“All in all, this new devastating policy shows that this current Government continues to be clueless about tourism, how it works, what it generates in revenue for Government coffers and for the people of this country. It is crystal clear that this Government knows absolutely nothing about tourism and is not interested in understanding it. It intends to bleed the industry dry just as it is doing with the government-owned companies,” the MP said.
The new rules, issued by Justice Minister Rafael Boasman and the Police Force in conjunction with the Immigration and Border Protection Service (IBP), affects all visa-restricted crew who intend to transfer (same day) via St. Maarten for the purpose of making a connection via plane or boat, overnight here to make a connection (transfer) via plane or boat (maximum 48 hours) or those seeking to remain (manifested) on a vessel for periods longer than 48 hours in port and do not possess a Dutch Caribbean Visa (DCV).
Such crew members are now required to have a vessel agency stand as guarantor on their behalf. This measure implies that any agency seeking to be recognized as a “bona-fide agent” must acquire authorization prior to a visa-restricted crewmember’s arrival into port, stakeholders were informed in the letter.
This new policy is not applicable to ferries and personal pleasure boats. All travellers on these vessels, including crew, are required to have a Dutch Caribbean Visa, the letter signed by Police Chief Carl John states.
Visa-restricted crewmembers will only be allowed an initial stay of 30 days to a maximum of 90 days per annum. The counting of these stay days shall be determined by the actual number of days spent in the Dutch Caribbean, which according to the letter, is in line with the Dutch Caribbean Visa Policy.
The maximum of 90 days stay period for crewmembers hampers homeporting directly. Crewmembers serving homeporting ships need stays of between three to six months as ships are usually positioned in homeporting destinations.
This rule means that crewmembers who exhaust their 90 days will have to wait a full year before returning to St. Maarten. Crewmembers of yachts and cruise ships work year round and are often posted on different ships during the years. “The time limitation makes no sense. The entire system, brought about by a Government devoid of tourism understanding will sink our already low numbers and dipping revenues,” Heyliger said.
A fee of NAf. 45 is attached to each positive decision rendered for a crewmember’s stay. IBP will invoice all ships agents (acting as guarantors) on a monthly basis on the fees owed for that month to Government.
Ships agents and other affected stakeholders have contacted Port St. Maarten about its role in this new policy and whether the impact on the cruise sector has been pointed out to the Government agencies. The Port’s stance has not yet been made known.
Several ships operators are already said to have informed their local handlers that they will inform their affected crewmembers not to disembark in St. Maarten and to do so instead in other friendlier ports.
“This will place St. Maarten at a competitive disadvantage. As a destination, we have had for several years the highest crew spending from cruise ships. It does not take a genius or a math whiz to figure out what will happen to revenues when less crewmembers disembark to go shopping, dine and make use of our amenities,” said Heyliger.
The impact for Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) should also not be underestimated, said Heyliger. Crewmembers for both yachts and cruise ships often fly in to join their vessels in St. Maarten. “At least 500 crew members, both for cruise ships and yachts, pass through St. Maarten regularly. Are we to kill this source of revenue?” asked Heyliger.
St. Maarten was recently named the number four destination chosen by the rich in a survey reported on by Bloomberg.com. “This was no accident. People in the industry know what Government appears not to; that is some of those people route their yacht crew via St. Maarten. If we put more restrictions it is no mystery what will happen,” he said.
The impact of the new policy on hotel bookings and on taxi drivers also must not be ignored, said Heyliger. “Tourism is a circle and we are all parts of it; affect one area and everyone will suffer. Think about it: How do crew members get from the airport to their yacht or cruise ships? By taxi of course. When they arrive ahead of their ships, they are booked into hotels; they go out dining and they spend money.”
“I am for keeping St. Maarten safe and for protecting our borders, but Government cannot implement measures to fix what they perceive to be loopholes and kill the one economic generating industry – tourism,” he said.