The St. Maarten Tourism Bureau says arrivals to the Dutch-speaking destination jumped by 17 percent in 2012 compared to the year before — aided by JetBlue’s new direct service from Puerto Rico and weekly Delta flights from New York to St. Maarten.
The agency said it recorded an 11 percent growth from the U.S. market; that compares to average 3 percent growth in 2012 for a group of seven nearby destinations including Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Curaçao, Puerto Rico and St. Lucia.
For the Canadian market, St. Maarten had the highest growth at 27 percent (followed by Anguilla at 24 percent and Curaçao at 22 percent). From Europe, Puerto Rico had the biggest percentage increase, at 19 percent — but that base has only 16,000 passengers compared to St. Maarten’s 70,000 passengers, which saw a 7 percent increase during that period.
To cope with the increased passenger load, St. Maarten has secured a $132 million bond for major improvements to its Princess Juliana International Airport. Moody’s Investor Service has given the airport a Baa2 bond rating for the issuance of the new bonds — proceeds of which will replace existing bonds and pay for the anticipated capital expenditures.
“The issuing of these bonds will enable us to take our already successful airport to new heights in which we can welcome more international flights as well as the growing number of private jet owners that want to come to our Caribbean island,” said Regina LaBega, the airport’s managing director, in a press release.
This includes rehabilitating PJIA’s relatively short 7,150-foot runway — which has already commenced — as well as construction of a new fuel farm that can store 15 days of jet fuel. Also on the drawing board: construction of new taxiways to increase runway efficiency, an expansion of the aprons to provide more aircraft parking, and acquisition of land so the airport can expand later on if necessary.
Another capital improvement project planned for St. Maarten is the $39 million Simpson Bay Lagoon Causeway — a controversial 700-meter causeway that will link Airport Boulevard to Cole Bay in the vicinity of Port de Plaisance. The bridge has been dubbed a waste of taxpayers’ money and an environmental disgrace by locals opposed to the project, yet it’s still on track and should be completed by May 2013.
A project of a different kind should provide an immediate boost to St. Maarten’s duty free sector. The Jan. 7 soft opening of Blue Mall Shopping Center in Philipsburg featured six stores — Enjoy SXM, Fashion & Chic, Swarovski, Swatch Watches, Bacchus and Yogen Früz — though more will be added for a total of 110,000 square feet of retail space. Blue Mall is easily accessible from the French side of the island via Terre Basses and is a few minutes’ drive from PJIA.