Fellow St. Maarteners,
Residents of our beautiful island,
The year 2016 is now bound for the history books as we enter 2017 with joy and hope, with excitement and enthusiasm, determined that this will be our best year ever!
And as we bid the Old Year goodbye, we cannot but realize that being alive to see the New Year is in itself a huge blessing, for so many who began 2016 with us did not make it this far. We remember them with affection and pray that the good Lord will have a place reserved for them at his right hand.
If one word could describe the year 2016 it probably would be “transition.” Not just because life itself is a transition, but also because transitions can be painful and shocking and even full of chaos. If you doubt the pain in transitions, ask the caterpillar how it feels before it grows wings and becomes a butterfly. Transitions also involve uncertainties. The year 2016 was full of them in practically every facet of our lives.
Politically, the parliamentary election of September 26, yielded an outcome that was open to various interpretations with four of the nine political parties that took part in it winning seats, and resulting in the Coalition government formed by the National Alliance, the United St. Martin (US) party and the Democratic Party. In other words, the same coalition that was in place before the election, now enjoying a combined two-thirds majority in parliament.
The “new” government took office on December 21, and hence is only a few days old. However, it has produced a governing program, titled “Stability for Prosperity,” which is anchored in its vision of a strong, proud, healthy, and a resilient nation in which opportunities will abound for everyone to be able to pursue their dreams of happiness and prosperity.
We intend to go about the people’s business in an open and transparent manner, and will continue to stress sound financial management based on a balanced budget. In fact, putting our financial house in order is a basic principle of good governance and we have demonstrated our commitment to this by presenting a balanced 2017 budget to parliament on schedule for the first time in recent memory. This budget has now been approved paving the way for us to start the New Year on a good financial footing.
In our efforts to better serve and represent all the people of our beloved island, we will be focused on five strategic goals. These include nation-building and good governance, which I touched on earlier, sound financial management, public safety, social and environmental sustainability and an improved quality of life for everyone. I am convinced that to achieve these lofty goals, government must always act responsibly, with integrity and accountability, and by empowering the people in an honest and decisive manner, engaging them critically from the bottom up in policy-making through constant consultation and dialogue with civil society, the business sector and all the other stakeholders.
Fellow St. Maarteners, ladies and gentlemen,
Our economy rests almost exclusively on the one pillar of tourism and 2016 has not been a very good year for tourism all across the region. The crisis in Venezuela has had a severe impact on arrival figures for Aruba, in particular, where stopover arrivals decreased by 4.1% year on year to September 2016, due mainly to almost 24% fewer Venezuelan visitors in that same period.
Figures for Curaçao show a very slight increase of 0.2% in stopover arrivals year-on-year up to August 2016. According to CTO statistics, the Dominican Republic performed the best in the region, registering an increase in stopover arrivals of 7.1% year-on-year to September 2016, while cruise passenger arrivals grew by 67%!
This is the environment in which St. Maarten has to compete for the same tourist dollar. And although the Central Bank of Curaçao and St. Maarten indicated that tourism had slowed quite some in the third quarter of 2016, the island still recorded a pretty healthy 5.5% increase in stopover arrivals year-on-year up to August 2016.
Other economic indicators do not seem to support the gloom and doom picture painted by some critics. For example, St. Maarten still maintained its Baa2 credit rating with stable outlook, while our Public Debt to GDP ratio remains one of the lowest in the region at 36.5% (Curaçao’s is at 44.3% and Aruba at 80.1%). The inflation rate on St. Maarten is a rather modest 0.3% although it is much higher than in Curaçao (-0.4%) and Aruba (-0.7%) respectively, while unemployment on our island is still too high at 8.9% compared to Aruba’s at 7.6%. However, it is lower than Curaçao’s which has an unemployment rate of 11.7%.
Per capita GDP in US dollars for St. Maarten is among the highest in the Caribbean at 26,045 with Curaçao at 20,260 and Aruba at 24,402. The Cayman Islands at US $54,338, however, more than doubled St. Maarten’s figure.
These are the figures that are available right now and even though there are areas that need serious improvement, St. Maarten’s economy is not in the doldrums as some people would like us to believe. This, of course, does not mean all is well with our one-pillar economy. As a matter of fact, the last weeks of 2016 showed clearly that we still have a long way to go, what with the frequent electricity outages, the recent massive Internet outage, garbage collection issues, and the list goes on.
All of this while government has been experiencing a financial crunch brought about by dwindling tax receipts and a noticeable decrease in major construction projects. However, this should be seen as the proverbial darkest moment before the break of dawn. There is light already visible at the end of the tunnel.
For example, we have managed to pay two-thirds of our public debt, while tightening our financial belt. We have moved into the new Government Administration building after eight years of it lying fallow with no solution in sight. And the year could not have ended on a better note than with the news that the Princess Juliana International Airport, SXM, has been named the Caribbean Airport of the Year by the region’s main online publication dedicated to travel and tourism, the Caribbean Journal.
So, as we leave 2016 behind, we cannot but usher in the New Year with a renewed sense of purpose, and a commitment to work even harder together to bring about the important changes that will reposition St. Maarten on the path to sustainable economic development. While, indeed, tax reform, in other words, moving towards more indirect taxes, would receive greater government attention than has been the case until now, our economic success can only be guaranteed by an effective public-private partnership (PPP) that involves government, business and labor in a symbiotic relationship.
To give more teeth to such partnership, government would look into establishing a permanent PPP Committee that would meet regularly and come up with feasible initiatives that would be adequately funded and properly executed.
Government will do all within its power to attract bona fide investors to the island as part of its efforts to crank up the economy, however, we will ensure that such investors understand and adhere to the principle of environmental sustainability and placing the welfare of the local worker at the center of their investment drive.
Reviving the economy will be a top priority for this government, but this would be impossible to achieve in an atmosphere riddled with rising crime and general insecurity. Therefore, public safety and security will rank very high on our agenda. Crime prevention is without doubt everybody’s business. Police cannot do it alone. Community policing will continue to be our goal and the expansion of the Police Force with more men and women in blue will be pursued as much as possible.
But every one of us has an individual responsibility and a civic duty to contribute to keeping our neighborhoods safe by being our brother’s keeper and by reporting any suspicious persons or activities to the Police. We cannot continue to shield undesirable elements in our communities with our silence. While stiffer punishment will be sought for the more hideous violent crimes, the emphasis in general will, however, be on prevention and rehabilitation.
Fellow St. Maarteners, ladies and gentlemen,
Education is not only the key that would unlock the doors of progress, it is also the foundation upon which every society builds its future. Every child on St. Maarten already has a right to education in accordance with our Compulsory Education laws. In the next four years, therefore, the focus will be on increasing access to quality education from the pre-school to the tertiary levels so that each child can aspire to attaining the highest educational goals, be it in the academic or vocational fields, to the extent that their intellect and hard work would permit them to reach. A vibrant and growing economy can only be sustainable if it is based on an educated, creative and adaptable local work force. Therefore, tertiary and professional education will be the cornerstone of our efforts to build an economy that will benefit our people.
Human resource development is a vital component of our strategies to lift every man and woman to the place of prominence they rightfully belong in our society. This means that we will stimulate life-long learning and take the necessary measures to ensure training and retraining of staff at all levels. We will stimulate innovation and the use of technology, not only in the classroom, but also in the day-to-day business of government.
With regard to our youth, they no longer want to remain the so-called “leaders of tomorrow” forever; they want a crack at the leadership roles now. Some of them have been able to win seats in Parliament and one of them has made it into this new Council of Ministers, demonstrating that their tomorrow is already here. I consider this a very positive development, one that this government supports wholeheartedly and will continue to nurture. Our youth must be an integral part of the solution to our problems, including those special ones they face such as high drop-out rates and repetition, unacceptably high unemployment rates and the increasing culture of hopelessness that drives some of them to crime. We will make it possible for them to cultivate a St. Maarten identity based on our dynamic culture, which would help them develop a heightened sense of pride in their island and heritage and increase their self-worth. Those of them with special talents in the performing arts, culture and sports will receive the full support of government to pursue their dreams right up to the best of world stages.
While we often like to focus on the few bad eggs, we must always remember that our youth are indeed a reflection of us, their parents. And many of them are good, well-behaved, young people, who can stand their own with young people from any part of the world. We need to continue to bolster their self-confidence in the belief that they are called to inherit this land and run this country without ever having to bow to anybody, no matter where they may come from.
Fellow St. Maarteners, ladies and gentlemen,
I began this address by saying that 2016 could be called the Year of Transition. But transition to what? Transition to a new St. Maarten, where each of us has a sacred role to play in bringing about the change that we have been clamoring for. A new St. Maarten where your political affiliation would not deprive you from making your contribution to an improved quality of life for our island; a new St. Maarten where your religious or ethnic background would not disqualify you from participating fully in the St. Maarten Dream; a new St. Maarten we all call home, not because we were born here by chance, but because we have made a commitment to invest all we have and want to be in its continued progress, so that when we sing the song made popular by Lino Hughes, and say, “St. Martin is my home” we would mean it not only in the physical sense, but let our hearts also beat in sync with the music in a spiritual connection that only those who know what home smells like can establish. And when we get to that line that says, “one island, one people, one destiny” everyone should understand that our oneness is not a cliché but an inheritance; it is in our DNA. That is why no effort to divide us will ever prosper.
Fellow St. Maarteners, residents of our beautiful island,
I call on each and every one of you to show that oneness of purpose; that unity that is so critical to achieving our goals in everything that we do. As we turn the page on 2016 and together embark on this journey into 2017 and beyond, I pray for health, wisdom, love and unity for you and your loved ones.
May the New Year bring you joy and happiness and may God continue to guide us all. I wish you a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year!
God bless you and your family.
God bless St. Maarten.
I thank you.
Prime Minister William Marlin