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…resilient destinations have proven flexible and reliable By Jan Sierhuis

The past two years, 2020-21, have been a rollercoaster ride for the Caribbean travel industry. The governments of the Dutch Kingdom, however, handled the pandemic crisis in close consultation with each other, allowing for swift and tailor-made control measures aimed at protecting their populations and local healthcare systems, while remaining open for trade and tourism – their economic lifelines.

With the aid of the Dutch government, they quickly recovered and the labour force now has full protection.The past two years, 2020-21, have been a rollercoaster ride for the Caribbean travel industry. The governments of the Dutch Kingdom, however, handled the pandemic crisis in close consultation with each other, allowing for swift and tailor-made control measures aimed at protecting their populations and local healthcare systems, while remaining open for trade and tourism – their economic lifelines. With the aid of the Dutch government, they quickly recovered and the labour force now has full protection.


Sailing the Dutch Caribbean
The Dutch Caribbean comprises six small islands clustered in two locations in the Caribbean. St. Maarten, (on an island shared by the Dutch and French), is located in the centre of the Eastern Caribbean’s island chain, and is considered the yachting centre of the Dutch Caribbean. Nearby Saba and St. Eustatius are two “off-the-beaten-track” nature destinations attracting the attention of visiting yachtsman. 
During the hurricane months, yachts shelter in the protected Simpson Bay laguna in St. Maarten. Alternatively, they go south to Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (the so-called ABC islands). Located off the Venezuela peninsula, which protects them from the hurricanes, the ABC islands are the yachting gateway to Panama. Individually, they have much to offer and, combined, they present a unique blend of European and Latin Caribbean culture. Aruba is popular with U.S. vacationers, Curaçao with the Dutch, while laid-back Bonaire caters both to Dutch jet set and the USA’s dive market.


A growing business
The main Dutch Caribbean marinas and yacht clubs offer over 1,100 slips for yachts, with over half of these located in the Simpson Bay area in Dutch St. Maarten. Over 325 of them are suitable for mega-end superyachts over 80 ft. in length.With this inventory and service, yachting is already a main contributor to the local tourism sector. The maintenance-repair facilities, bunker and chandlery services also profit from the growing business, as do the jet service providers and the hotel sector. Several hotels in the Dutch Caribbean cater to the business by including a yacht marina on their property. The Renaissance in Aruba, the new Sandals in Curaçao, and the Harbour Village Hotel in Bonaire are examples of this.


Uncertainties and opportunities
These are uncertain times with economic disruptions and – for the first time since 9/11 – severe travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The full impact of the pandemic came in 2020, hitting the Caribbean around April of that year. Many Caribbean countries closed their borders in panic and stranded yachts were desperately looking for a safe haven to lay up and repatriate home as quickly as possible.Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten, with the aid of the Dutch government, quickly set up an effective repatriation programme for foreign yachts. Many used the KLM corridor to Amsterdam, which remained intact throughout the pandemic.Hans Drost, manager at the Windcreek Marina in Aruba, explained that the marinas in the ABC islands started to run full at the start of the 2020 hurricane season. Most owners, however, went home and left their boats secured, but unattended. As a result, maintenance and service came to a halt, and many businesses in the trade suffered. With Dutch aid, assistance for local businessowners was organized. This is how many survived the first year of the pandemic.


Vaccines and recovery
Once the vaccination programmes started, the Dutch Caribbean territories were among the first to reopenfor tourism and trade from Europe and the U.S.A. Slowly, tourists returned, and by the 2021 hurricane season, many boatmen returned to resume maintenance on their yachts and boats.The yards and maintenance suppliers experienced one of the best hurricane seasons in a long time. Still, the boats remained in the yards leaving food and bunker suppliers without business during most of 2021. By 2022, however, when the Omicron variant became dominant and booster programmes of the mRNA vaccines were implemented, most travel restrictions were lifted for the holiday season. Since then, the boats are sailing full again.The story to greet Spring 2022 across the Dutch Caribbean is: “best year ever, we are finally making money again!”  The word out of some yards, however, is that more extensive maintenance work – both on the boats and on the marina properties – is being delayed as owners recover lost income. But across the Dutch Caribbean, the marinas are full and the yachts are sailing again.


New uncertainties ahead
As winter transitioned to Spring in the north, the world was already a month into a military conflict between Ukraine and Russia. As a consequence, fuel and food prices were soaring. The uncertainty was how would this affect travel, particularly in Europe. One the one hand, people could decide to travel shorter distances as prices continue to rise. On the other hand, as many European holiday options are relatively close to the war zone, a Caribbean destination would likely appear a safer travel option – as long as the war continued.A related issue is the EU boycott against Russian oligarchs, many of whom own superyachts moored in the Caribbean and particularly in St. Maarten.
The Dutch Caribbean territories fall under the boycott, and the kingdom is currently looking at how to implement this in the region. Feedback from the marinas is that presently it is not an issue.


Crystal balling
It is difficult to predict whether a new virus strain will hit the U.S. and Europe this winter. Marinas appear to be waiting for the upcoming hurricane season to make more money again. If the war discontinues and the virus wanes, 2023 may well be another amazing year for the Caribbean, i.e., if oil and food prices remain relatively stable and world trade recovers.As always, plans are on the drawing board, but most will remain there for now. Growth potential definitely exists in the ABC islands, as these are still underdeveloped for yachting. Given the remarks of Brian Deher, ample room for growth may profit them too. However, developments in Venezuela, Colombia and Panama also dictate the role that the ABC islands can play in large-scale yachting in this region. The pace of these developments is yet unknown.The Dutch Caribbean is resilient to external disruptions, thanks to its status in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Like everyone else, these territories are currently enjoying the return of tourism and yachting. As new uncertainties lie ahead, this counts for something right now.

The long-term future for mega yachting remains bright, but short-term risks and uncertainties for marinas still exist. —

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