Heyliger requests US $50M from recovery fund as airport loan
PHILIPSBURG – Allocate a US $50-million loan from the Hurricane Irma recovery funds to Princess Juliana International Airport to jolt the rebuilding of the terminal building and related facilities to save its hub function in the north-eastern Caribbean, said United Democrat Leader Member of Parliament Theo Heyliger on Sunday.
The hub function, one of the valves of the country’s tourism heart, will be in serious jeopardy if the reconstruction does not begin in earnest, said Heyliger, pointing to the probability that the airport and its insurance NAGICO ending up in court over hurricane insurance claim.
The request for the loan to the airport was communicated by Heyliger as a suggestion to the Netherlands and the local government.
Heyliger said in his communication with those authorities, he queried if such a loan was possible to tide the airport over until the receipt of the insurance claim pay-out. “This would give a major incentive to the other businesses on the island. Money can then come back into circulation after the court case or settlement and be used for other recovery efforts.”
The country’s recovery requires “out-of-the-box thinking” on how to get the airport back up to full capacity. “That is beyond crucial. Antigua, for example, is boosting its hub function in the vacuum created by the absence of a full-capacity Princess Juliana [International Airport]. We cannot sit and just wait; we have to make progress,” Heyliger said. “To make the Dutch feel at ease, let them appoint a member on the board until the money is paid back. The Dutch are extremely concerned with justice. Having a functional airport guarantees the transparency and integrity of who is coming in and out of the country.
“We are a tourism-dependent country. Our needs are very different. A World Bank rep at the forefront, I believe, will aid in a better understanding of how our economy functions and the critical role the airport plays.
“I also suggest that government tries to appoint a mediator or look at whatever possibilities exist to solve the airport and NAGICO,” Heyliger said. This suggestion was communicated by him to the Council of Ministers, as well as the Head of the Dutch Representation in St. Maarten.
Taking the airport off life-support will lead to reviving of other interconnected sectors of the economy. But, even more important is getting hotels back up and running.
“Without the hotels reopening, all else is secondary. Government must boost its rapport with the private sector to help to re-open hotel doors. The airport then must be ready to accommodate the influx of passengers,” Heyliger said.
“Once those two have started, discussions with airlines about the restart and adding of flights will carry even more weight. Without those two – the airport and hotels – it won’t make sense bringing new airlift to the island,” Heyliger said.
In tandem with those two aspects, a new relationship must be forged with neighbouring islands to secure the airport’s hub function, he said. “We cannot take it for granted that our geographic location will keep our traditional partners tied to us. We as a destination need to crank up our tourism economy, but we cannot only look inward.
“Throwing millions in marketing now is a waste. Sending big delegations to conferences is also a waste. Our major hotels are closed, and our airport needs to be at a place it can handle even more flights comfortably. Better to save our limited marketing dollars for when the airport and hotels are back online.”
Heyliger cautioned against neglecting the cruise industry. “While getting our tourism product further polished, discussions with cruise lines must be a priority.”
The to-be-appointed tourism minister has a tough road ahead of him/her, according to Heyliger, a former Tourism Commissioner. “The new minister must take into account all the factors needed – rebuilding of hotels, airport, cementing ties with the cruise industry and marketing. St. Maarten will resume its place as a top destination with a vibrant economy.”