It is now common knowledge that the Government of St. Lucia is in the advanced stage of finalizing a 30 to 40-year agreement concerning our chief ports in Castries and Soufriere with Global Ports Holdings (GPH), a foreign company with its headquarters in the United Kingdom. This agreement has raised eyebrows because the Government has deliberately withheld from public scrutiny the terms and conditions associated with this significant and controversial-extraordinaire development despite its previous promises of transparency. Thus far, based on what we understand, this arrangement appears to be extremely one-sided, in which the ultimate losers are the people of St. Lucia and the St. Lucia Air and Sea Ports Authority (SLASPA), one of the few government-owned entities that has been profitable since its establishment by an Act of Parliament about forty years ago.
The Cruise sector continues to be one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry. We must not lose sight of the fact that cruise ship owners expect to recover their investment by way of ticket sales, onboard shopping, a percentage share of head taxes, shore excursions, and other amenities and services associated with the industry. Consequently, the cruise lines have the final say as to which ports their vessel will service and they also practically determine at what cost.
GPH is the middleman in this scenario offering their services “for a cut’’ to assist destinations like St Lucia to enhance their onshore facilities. There is nothing wrong with that. However, are we going to allow a foreign company to get a “cut” from already profitable long-standing, established businesses such as onshore excursions providers, pleasure craft operators, taxi operators, restaurants, and craft and souvenir vendors?
The Soufriere Foundation manages various aspects of the operations of Port Soufriere with the permission of SLASPA. Will GPH collect the jetty docking fees in Soufriere, depriving the Soufriere Foundation of carrying out its mission of fostering socio-economic and cultural development in Soufriere and its environs? A large part of Port Soufriere is designated as a fishing priority zone. What will happen to the activities of the fisher folk in Soufriere, will their customs be further restricted by this new arrangement with GPH, and will they have to pay “a cut” to GPH, as well? What about the Soufriere Marine Management Authority (SMMA), will they have to share the fees that it collects from the yachts that moor on their buoys with GPH?
The government can form a company with GPH based on its expertise and allow it to become a shareholder in that particular entity. However, giving a middleman control of our profitable ports at the expense of a successful and viable entity that St Lucia has built up over four decades years, is sheer madness.
Through this deal, the government is essentially making GPH the decision-maker between St Lucia and the cruise lines, disemboweling SLASPA in the process. SLASPA has been providing this same service with aplomb and distinction for years. Why do we need GPH? Once GPH uses the authority conceded to it by the Government of St. Lucia in this one-sided agreement, two things can happen. Firstly, they will attempt to raise the head tax, this could cause the cruise lines to seek greener pastures elsewhere and; there is no shortage of island destinations in the Caribbean which would welcome these cruise liners. This means St Lucia could be struck off as a port of choice. At that juncture, St Lucia will be the victim. Hence, the reason, why the ultimate authority over our ports must remain in the hands of the people of St. Lucia under the judicious management of SLASPA.
In closing, GPH is basically a developer with a good idea and with no assets in St. Lucia and they should be treated accordingly. They bring no cash. They are presently finalizing a loan for the development with a St. Lucian bank of which our national pension fund is a forty percent shareholder. In my opinion, if GPH is as good at what it does as our government’s intended actions indicate, then what they bring to the table is probably worth a share within an asset-free company, nothing more.
St Lucians must fully comprehend the consequences of giving away our valuable assets for as long as forty years. This could be dangerous with potential national security ramifications. Under these conditions, I appeal to my fellow St Lucians to reject this arrangement as is between our government and GPH. If the government insists on pursuing this arrangement as it is currently constituted, I urge you all to join the protest action organized by the Opposition on November 30th to save the island from inevitably calamity.