The Caribbean Yachting Industry Now
What’s the Problem? (And What’s the Strength?)
Summer 2011 is a good time to look at the “big picture” of the Caribbean yachting industry — the enterprises that support recreational sailing in the region. We asked several key figures in this sector for their views on its current problems and strengths. There was no doubt that they had already given this much thought — responses were fired back almost immediately.
Many thanks to all who participated.
The Big Problems
We asked, “In your view, what is the biggest single problem facing the Caribbean yachting industry today?”
• “CRIME!” chorused Robert Phillips, Managing Director of Doyle Sailmakers in the BVI; Hubert Winston, Managing Director of Dominica Marine Center; Ian Cowan, General Manager of Island Water World St. Lucia; and Donald Stollmeyer, Managing Director of Powerboats in Trinidad. Yachts have a powerful communication network and destinations where crime is reportedly a problem have suffered profound economic losses.
• “THE ECONOMY!” say Frank Virgintino, a cruising guide author who is also associated with Marina Zarpar in the Dominican Republic; Dale Westin, General Manager of Jamaica’s Errol Flynn Marina; and author and yacht insurance broker Don Street.
Frank states, “The biggest problem facing the yacht service industry is the worldwide recession. I have been in the marina and service business all my life, and recessions hit very hard on boatowners as boats are considered a luxury. This year at the marina in the DR, US-flagged boats were almost non-existent and Canadian boats in short supply. This represents a big problem for the marine service businesses because fixed costs remain the same and vacancies and loss of service jobs hurt the bottom line.”
Dale adds, “The escalating cost of fuel is having a definite effect on the industry. We are about mid-point between South Florida and the Panama Canal, and what was once a continuous stream of motor yachts heading to the canal is now only a trickle.”
Isabelle Prado of Mermer Location yacht charters in Martinique adds, “Airfares are very expensive and this is a brake to our development.”
Don warns that another sort of economic impact could be on the horizon. “Increasing numbers of boats are stored ashore during hurricane season. Some yards are jamming them in so close together that if a hurricane comes there will be disasters. My boss asked me to investigate selling yacht yard and marina liability insurance in the Caribbean. With very few exceptions I would not ask my worst enemy to give yacht yard or marina liability insurance.”
• “BUREAUCRACY!” — especially Customs clearance regulations — say cruising guide author Chris Doyle; John Duffy, Past President of the Antigua & Barbuda Marine Association; and Isabelle Prado. Isabelle sums it up: “One point that can give yachting a big help would be a great reduction in the clearance procedures between the different islands and standardization of the Customs fees.”
Perhaps shedding light on why the problems of crime and bureaucracy have not yet been solved, Robbie Ferron, Group Manager of the Caribbean-wide Budget Marine chandleries, says, “The biggest problem is that Caribbean people do not see the value of the industry, probably because with few exceptions they have not experienced the benefits of the industry. The beneficiaries are insufficient in numbers to influence governments any more than getting them to support the industry rhetorically.”
Addressing the Crime Problem
• Is the problem of crime being addressed? If so, how?
Hubert Winston says, “There are stakeholder-based security initiatives going on Caribbean-wide, such as those provided by the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security and the Dominica Marine Association, but these are at small interest-group level. The local police and governments need to take tourist security more seriously.”
And while Ian Cowan says, “There is an awareness in the system that crime has to be addressed, but not much has actually been done yet,” Donald Stollmeyer feels that “the police and coast guard are becoming more aware of the problem and the value of the yachting industry to their economies, and are being mandated by the various governments to provide protection.”
• What IDEALLY could be done to solve the crime problem?
Bob Phillips: “The tourist boards should be pressuring the police departments and courts, pushing the concept of economic prosperity when there is low or no crime.”
Donald advocates “establishment of marine police to patrol and take action in problem areas” and Hubert would like to see “local police teaming up with the small stakeholder-based security teams to give them support and coverage.”
Ian suggests “night courts to provide the instant hearing of the case against the suspect, with the tourist actually there to provide evidence before a judge.”
• What REALISTICALLY can be done to solve the crime problem?
Donald and Hubert feel that their ideal solutions are also realistic.
Ian says, in the absence of night courts, “Accept a video of the tourist’s evidence and allow that to be used as a court document in a later trial.”
Bob urges, “Write articles addressing the issue and outlining the positive things countries can do to educate their populations.”
Addressing the Economic Problems
• Are the problems related the economy being addressed? If so, how?”
Frank Virgintino: “The problem of the recession is not being addressed, as the marine industry does not have the consolidated economic and political clout to seek help.”
Don Street: “The problem of disaster risk in the yachting industry is not being addressed, and it won’t be until there is a major disaster or the local governments insist that the yards and marinas have proper liability insurance.”
• What IDEALLY could be done to solve the economic problems?
Frank: “The various Caribbean countries could create advertising to bring customers to the Caribbean. Last year at the northern boat show circuit there were very few exhibitors from the Caribbean. When the economy declines, there must be more displays at boat shows, not less. Many cruisers have put off their dream of coming to the Caribbean because finances have become tight. We need to show them that the Caribbean (in most places) is very affordable.”
Dale Westin: “Alternative fuels and/or new methods of propulsion are probably the only answer [to the problem of fuel prices].”
Don: “To solve the problem of disaster risk, the yacht yards and marinas should sort out their hurricane season storage and fire-fighting strategies themselves.”
• What REALISTICALLY can be done to solve the economic problems?
Frank: “The marine industry needs to agree on how to proceed to attract business. This can be done by having a — or the — marine association working on shared programs and space at the northern boat shows.”
Dale: “More folks will switch to sail [in reaction to high fuel prices].”
Don: “Why not just do a really good job of running whatever business you are in, and not feel you have to expand, expand, expand?”
Addressing the Bureaucracy Problem
• Is the problem of bureaucracy being addressed? If so, how?
Chris Doyle says, “Entry procedures have been made a bit easier with eSeaClear.com. Grenada and St. Vincent & the Grenadines are holding talks to see what they can do about a common space.”
• What IDEALLY could be done to solve the bureaucracy problem?
Chris: “We should be able to run with the eSeaClear idea and do everything online, and never have to actually go into Customs unless specially requested. A credit card account could be held at eSeaClear to make the necessary payments. We should be able to dispense with outward clearance altogether for short stays (say two weeks). Outward clearance is also a bit redundant on the eSeaClear system, as the officials can check when you left by seeing when and where you cleared in next. All this data is available to them.” John Duffy takes it a step further: “Have a system of entry to one island allowing entry to all.”
• What REALISTICALLY could be done to solve the bureaucracy problem?
John Duffy: “[Yachts should be able to clear in with] one form, and one person dealing with Customs, Immigration and Port Authority. It happens in some islands and should happen in all.” Chris concurs: “Dominica is way ahead of the game here. Unless you are changing crew you only visit Customs — they take care of Immigration and Port Authority. Then, as long as you are not staying longer than two weeks, your inward clearance is also your outward clearance: you can leave without going back to Customs. ESeaClear makes it even easier.”
On the issue that Caribbean people generally do not see the value of the yachting industry and therefore do not influence their governments to support it, Robbie Ferron says, “The extent to which this problem is being addressed is minimal. Ideally, major efforts could be made to ‘sell’ the industry to the people, but realistically this is unsure of success and the required funding and motivation by investors are not present.” John agrees: “Governments have been slow to recognize the value of yachting tourism. More is being done to promote the product, but nowhere near enough compared with its value.”
The Big Strengths
We asked, “In your view, what is the Caribbean yachting industry’s greatest single strength today?”
• “THE CARIBBEAN!” was a not surprising response, evoking its marine environment, its beauty and climate, and its fame. “Our greatest strength is the Caribbean Sea, including the bays, harbours, reefs, coastal areas, etcetera,” says Donald Stollmeyer. Bob Phillips says, “The industry is lucky in that we are easy to get to when the weather is bad elsewhere” and Dale Westin states, “Yachts in the Caribbean enjoy the most beautiful venue in the world.”
Robbie Ferron: “The greatest strength is the branding ‘Caribbean’ when associated with sailing.”
Frank Virgintino: “The biggest single strength of the Caribbean yacht industry is climate and competitive pricing (compared to the States, Canada and Europe)” and Chris Doyle seconds this: “We have an excellent combination of lovely anchorages and good yacht services” — which brings us to…
• “YACHT SERVICES!” As Don Street points out, “A double strength is the availability of gear and the availability of some of the finest tradesmen in the world (if the sailor is willing to search them out)” and Bob Phillips elaborates: “We have a wide range of products to offer. As the quality of services ranges from abysmal to world class and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to be in the top percentile, our strength is the ease with which we can improve customer service.”
Ian Cowan says, “The best thing that yachting has to offer to the islands — all of them — is the fact that yachts have to be cared for. They have a lot of people on them who have to buy produce and products of all kinds and are very much more inclined to eat at a shoreside restaurant than any hotel or cruise ship guests. They employ a large number of technical service guys, and pay them directly in cash. These service providers are the breadwinners of their families in a lot of isolated places with little hope of work other than on the yachts.”
Interestingly, Isabelle Prado adds: “The main strength of the French islands’ yachting industry is that there is no important problem with security. However, it’s a very fragile situation and local governments must be very attentive to this. If there are too many security problems in our area, the good activity that we have now can disappear in one season.”
Optimizing the Strength of ‘The Caribbean’
• Are steps being taken to optimize the strength of “the Caribbean”, i.e. its environment and name? If so, what are they?
Chris Doyle says, “Some attempt has been made to preserve the natural beauty both below and above the water with marine parks; Tobago Cays is an excellent example. However, all too often the pressures for development are so strong that more and more of the places we consider outstanding will get covered in concrete.”
Robbie Ferron, on the Caribbean name, says, “No, on the contrary, the brand is being allowed to be compromised by the many negative stories that inevitably develop as customer satisfaction repeatedly does not match up to expectations.”
• What could be done to optimize the strength of the Caribbean’s environment?
Don Stollmeyer: “[Ideally and realistically] the Caribbean Sea needs to be protected through stringent antifouling laws, anchoring laws in sensitive areas, and education, particularly of local people, about the marine ecosystem.” Chris: “[Ideally and realistically] Caribbean countries need to take a serious look at their resources and think about conserving more coastal land, especially in areas accessible for boating. Rainforests have been successfully preserved and protected; now we need to think more about our coastal areas before it has all changed beyond recognition.”
Optimizing the Strength of the Yacht Service Sector
• Are steps being taken to optimize the strength of the yacht service sector? If so, what are they?
Ian Cowan: “Only in as far as that the resource is noted for each place and put out as a public sort of display. Some effort is being made via the tourist boards and other concerned entities, including the yacht magazines, but not by the local newspapers that could get to the population and explain the sector’s benefits.
Bob Phillips: “The companies that want to survive this tough economic cycle are improving customer service to keep the customers they have and to attract new ones. I was very impressed with the attitude change this year in Antigua, where everyone I interacted with over the course of several visits, both marine and non-marine, had a positive attitude, smiled, greeted me, and seemingly genuinely wanted to help. There was even a group doing exit surveys at the airport in early June asking what visitors liked and what the island could be doing to improve. Antigua is having a tough time since Stanford folded, but is using the experience to improve their product.”
• What IDEALLY could be done to optimize the strength of the yacht service sector?
Ian: “Encourage local people to see that there is a market for their services, and offer the services available direct to the yachts; just be certain that each business has a good reputation.”
Bob: “Ideally everyone, both private and public sector, would try to be more welcoming and provide better services.”
John Duffy: “A unified approach from the whole Caribbean working together at shows, and with joint advertising and joint promotions. Together, the Caribbean can attract more yachts.”
• What REALISTICALLY could be done to optimize the strength of the service sector?
Ian: “Just try to do as much as possible along the above lines. For example, it would not be hard to raise local awareness of the sector with a weekly column in the local papers.”
Dale Westin: “Optimization of the Caribbean as a yachting venue will happen when the USA lifts its 50-year travel ban on Cuba.”
Frank Virgintino: “Ideally and realistically, it’s the same answer: More advertising for the Caribbean with regard to the climate and the costs, and participation in the boat shows in the United States, Canada and Europe to generate interest.”
John: “Make the Caribbean Marine Association a body that can work to unify the Caribbean’s approach to the yachting world. With just a very little funding from each island’s government, it would make a big difference.”
Robbie Ferron takes us back to square one: to optimize the strengths of the Caribbean yachting industry we need to “deal with the problems; realistically they are not hard to identify.” And the consensus seems to be that to deal with our problems and optimize our strengths, unity in the yachting industry is the key.
Copyright© 2011 Compass Publishing