WHEN the Prime Minister announced his Cabinet of Ministers in December 2011, the loudest voices of criticism and concern were focused on the Minister for Tourism, Heritage and the Creative Industries. The argument, at the time, was the Choiseul MP’s inexperience and his supposed disconnect with the movers and shakers in Tourism, locally, regionally and internationally. The Chastanet acolytes commented that unlike “their guru” Lorne Theophilus had no background in Tourism, owned no hotels, travel agencies or other tourism related businesses and was not part of any “distinguished” Tourism organization. Whilst they did not publicly state this, their history indicates that what they really meant was that Hon. Theophilus was not a suitable choice because he did not possess a polished accent, was not “high coloured” and was connected to the rich and powerful!.
Allen Chastanet was himself among the first to predict Lorne’s imminent failure and spoke even louder when the Minister announced that Chastanet’s “deal with American Airlines cannot continue”. For Chastanet, the answer to all our Tourism questions was airlift – the misphilosophy of “if you bring the planes, people will come.” Often, whilst a minister and when he had no trips on the horizon, Chastanet would fly in his associates through million dollar fiascos such as Boxing in Paradise and CHA Market Place. Based on his public pronouncements in early 2012, one would have thought Allen Chastenet left a legacy of a solid Tourism model which Theophilus could have followed. The records proved otherwise, however, as were evidenced by Theophilus’ pronouncements in the 2012/2013 Budget. Among his revelations was the $134,460.00 bill for Chastanet’s cell phone. This was in addition to Chastanet’s humungous travel expenses of $620,173.00 between 2009 and 2011.
From the Saint Lucia Labour Party’ first Budget after the 2011 elections, the allocation for Tourism and in particular travel for the entire Ministry was cut. The Ministry of Tourism, which includes all officers and the Minister, would have to conduct business on a travel budget of $122,296. This was significantly less than what the former Minister used for his own travel in any given year. Again, the critics thought that was disastrous. Clearly, they did not realize that most of Chastanet’s escapades around the world were wasted trips and at times he never even made it to the so called meetings or negotiations he was supposed to attend. The challenge to Lorne Theophilus was to do more with less. What then has been the result?
Shocked as he was, Theophilus immediately set to work and the figures under his watch speak for themselves. In 2013, Saint Lucia welcomed 317, 000 stay over visitors. This was a record year. In 2014, Saint Lucia recorded even better figures with a 6% increase. The recorded stay over arrivals was 338, 158. So 2014 exceeded the record year of 2013. If we are to look closer at arrivals on a monthly basis, it will reveal that seven out of twelve months, namely February, March, April, June, October, November and December were record breaking months for visitor arrivals. Already 2015 is showing signs of incredible growth. Take January 2015 as an example, where our arrivals were 31, 541. I need not tell you, that was a record and 14% increase over the reported figure for January 2014.
How did the Choiseul MP do in two years what Chastanet could not in five years? When quizzed about his performance, in direct contract to the bombastic Chastanet, Lorne Theophilus with typical humility simply responds: “I let those who were appointed to serve in various capacities do their work, while I do mine.” The Minister insists that officials within his Ministry know what he is doing and he empowers the Saint Lucia Tourist Board to execute its mandate without interference.
Notwithstanding, the fact is that success does not come about accidentally; there must be a clearly thought out strategy. According to Director of Tourism, Louis Lewis new strategies such as online marketing, using the Diaspora, appointment of a Culinary Ambassador, strategic alliances to increase airlift, deeper collaboration with the SLHTA and individual efforts by properties have all added to Saint Lucia’s visibility. By the way, did I point out that Louis Lewis was also Director of Tourism under Chastanet? The question then is how is he able to achieve the success under Theophilus which eluded the country under Chastanet. The answer is just as simple and it is this. Under Labour and Theophilus, well thought out strategies were implemented and the Board was allowed to function as it ought to.
Speaking of airlift, let us examine Saint Lucia’s strategy since 2011. Allen Chastanet said Saint Lucia would suffer because of the change in airlift policy. Between 2008 and 2011significant sums were expended to lure visitors (or should I say planes) into Saint Lucia. According to the Director of Tourism, Louis Lewis, this paid off only in numbers (visitor arrivals) but the “quantitative benefits were lacking” because the hotel rooms were discounted to attract visitors in such a competitive environment and the cost to the treasury was exceedingly high. During his recent appearance on IN TOUCH with Jadia Jn. Pierre on Choice TV, the Director revealed that Chastanet’s guarantees for seats cost Saint Lucia $24 million dollars. You read that right, dear reader! What was even more interesting were the Director’s pronouncements that since the decision was taken to discontinue the guarantees for airlines, Saint Lucia had been able to attract an additional 22,000 seats at a cost of 1.4 million dollars. “This,” said Lewis “is a totally different approach. What we are doing now is selling the destination on the strengths of its attributes and what the demand factors are. We have gotten to the point where the demand for the destination is that strong that the conversations between ourselves and the airlines are far easier.”
Chastanet had no faith in this strategy. His view was that planes bring people, people do not bring planes. As a result, he did the direct opposite of what Lorne is doing. Here are the results of a demand driven policy, versus an airlift driven policy.
Growth in the US market has been significant. Ironically, this is the market that caused Chastanet and Guy Joseph the most anxiety, as they addressed their April 2013 Press Conference. In addition to their regular New York Service, Jet Blue now flies to Saint Lucia out of Boston. Delta now flies a direct service out of New York. On occasion, Delta has as many as three flights per day from Atlanta to Saint Lucia. United Airlines are about to move to three flights to Saint Lucia weekly. As if we needed one more reason to prove Allen Chastanet possessed no understanding of the industry he led and had no idea what was necessary to improve the industry, in 2013 Chastanet described the prospects for the US market as “terrifying”. Perhaps what he meant is that the rate of growth surpasses his expectations and given where he left the industry, it is unbelievable that these successes would be recorded so quickly.
It is worth noting that no single investment in tourism occurred when Chastanet was Minister. To the contrary, under his watch, Saint Lucia had the highest number of hotels in receivership in the region. That has since changed and new investments such as Freedom Bay in Soufriere and a new 800 room hotel in Cap Estate are underway.
So where is Allen Chastanet now? Where, too, are his acolytes of doom and gloom?
By now Chastanet should be aware of a 32% growth in the US market over last year’s figure, for the first quarter of 2015. Arrivals from Canada also register a 24% growth.
It would be interesting to hear from the self styled Tourism Guru now. Will Chastanet ever admit that Lorne’s approach is a more cost effective, targeted and results oriented approach? Will he ever admit that Lorne Theophilus is a far better Tourism Minister than he was and can ever be?
If you are wondering why Chastenet is so silent and distant lately, it is because there is nothing to complain or lie about when the figures speak for themselves.
Bravo to Hon. Lorne Theophilus, the Saint Lucia Tourist Board and the SLP Administration. Better days are here in tourism. We now have a responsibility to protect these gains from the spendthrift who is seeking to be Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister. Unlike Chastanet, the numbers do not lie!
By Stephen Lester Prescott