When it comes to duty free shopping, no Caribbean destination holds more appeal than St. Maarten, a Dutch-speaking outpost of the Netherlands that shares the 37-square-mile island with French-speaking St. Martin.
It also has one of the Caribbean’s most attractive airports.
Last year, St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) closed a $132 million bond to finance a long list of improvements including rehabilitating the airport’s relatively short 7,150-foot runway, construction of a new fuel farm that can store 15 days of jet fuel, the building of new taxiways to increase runway efficiency, expanding aprons to provide more aircraft parking, and acquisition of land so the airport can expand later on if necessary.
SXM also embarked on a redevelopment of its landside and airside retail areas to boost non-aviation revenues, deemed by a recent study to be considerably lower than regional and global norms for airports its size.
“The long-standing concessionaires were given the first option to be part of the new retail strategy,” Michael R. Granger wrote last month in St. Maarten’s online Daily Herald. “However, many complained that SXM Airport simply wanted to force them off the premises, preferring to work with new concessionaires with deeper pockets. The flip side of that argument was that several of the concessionaires owed the airport a total of over $20 million in back rent, a situation dubbed unsustainable for the airports future growth and expansion plans.”
Nevertheless, SXM — which on Dec. 3 celebrated its 70th anniversary in business— has upgraded the entire shopping area “with better layout, décor and lighting, which will make passengers more disposed to spend,” said Granger. “In the end, the majority of the retail outlets remain locally owned and operated.”
In addition, at least seven new concessionaires have opened at SXM, reports Suzy Kartokromo, the airport’s acting manager of marketing and customer service. She said about 92 percent of the available space at SXM has already been allocated, and 85 percent of the concessions are local and already existing stores.The Simpson Bay Lagoon Causeway
Another capital improvement project for St. Maarten is the $39 million Simpson Bay Lagoon Causeway — a 760-meter causeway that now links Airport Boulevard to Cole Bay in the vicinity of Port de Plaisance. The bridge, which opened to traffic in late December 2013, accommodates two lanes of traffic with protected sidewalks on each side, a bicycle track and a swing bridge at its center.
The cruise business is also booming. In 2013, the Port of St. Maarten received 1,785,670 passengers — 32,455 more than in 2012, itself a banner year. Cruise passengers arrived on 631 vessel calls, up from 622 the previous year, said Mark Mingo, CEO of the St. Maarten Harbour Group. Incredibly, only 105,000 cruise ship passengers visited St. Maarten back in 1980, fewer than the amount which now visits in three weeks.
According to the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, passenger and crew visits together generated $356.1 million in revenues for St. Maarten during the 2011-12 cruise season, up a whopping 55 percent form the $230.3 million reported in the 2008-09 season. Per-capita expenditures by those passengers also rose dramatically, from $147.98 in 2008-09 to $185.40 in 2011-12 — by far the highest anywhere in the Caribbean.
The weighted average spend per party in 2011-12 came to $389.34 and was almost totally dominated by watches and jewelry ($267.03). Perfumes, cosmetics, liquor and electronics also contributed to overall sales, though at much lower levels. Crew members, however, spent slightly more on electronics than on watches and jewelry.
More than 8,100 people are employed in the cruise ship industry, a major driver of St. Maarten’s tourism-driven economy.