Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The week of elections in Antigua. What to do? PART "2"

Back on March 24th 2004 when we set off on the Eco Tour we were very excited at the prospect of a new era in leadership. The UPP had won the election by far and would be making some needed changes. What was wrong would be made right. In five Islands Harbour we passed one of the Wadadli Cats being skippered by Sheldon and we both waved blue UPP t-shirts at each other. Most of the nation was happy with the decision they had made, and later at Bird Island that day I turned on Observer Radio to listen to people calling in offering congratulations. I decided to call and said something like “Congratulations to the UPP. I am happy to know that people like Harold Lovell will be leading this nation as I am sure with people like him involved tourism will be better off. Winston said “thanks Bird Island” which is where I said I was calling from.
I didn’t know Lovell was going to be minister of Tourism but was exceptionally happy to hear that he was appointed later. In fact, I was so happy that I organized all the people I knew who were involved in tours and charters to get together in an association so that we could meet with him. I was sure that we could finally get some proper representation at government level with a man like Lovell in charge of tourism. Some forty five company representatives met at a hotel conference room in St. Johns to start the Antigua and Barbuda Excursion Alliance. We elected a board or representatives including a president who as it turned out was me, and then we discussed issues that related to all of our businesses. After this, the board met several times for hours and hours to prepare a document that we could take to the minister who we had sent a prelim letter to. We had our organization registered as a not for profit company and waited for a reply from the Ministry. Nada. We knew they were busy, so we waited. Nada. We then got one of our board members who had a friend in the ministry to contact the Minister directly about our proposed meeting. We were told the Minister to get a meeting with the Junior Minister of Tourism, Hilson Baptiste (Brother B). This wasn’t what we wanted and again asked the minister to meet with us. Once again we were told that all tour companies and water sports had to speak with the Junior Minister of Tourism. Determined to push forward we ended up meeting with Brother B at the Ministry of Tourism. He listened for to us speak but generally have us more advice and spoke more than he listened. He’s a great talker and an excellent politician. He told us to make some changes to our letter and our presentation and to come back to him again soon. The board did some research on similar organizations in other islands and met with the minister again the following month. This is the letter we presented to him sometime in 2004:

Mr. Harold E. Lovell
Mr. Hilson Baptise
The Ministry of Tourism
Antigua and Barbuda

Dear Sirs:

After our meeting with you several weeks ago we have had some time to take your advice and have properly formed the structure of the Antigua Barbuda Excursion Alliance. We have also been more specific with regard to our members’ goals and the following is a description of the issues and the ways we see that they can be solved:

1. Fair representation of our tours to the tourists in this country.
A) We feel that all tour desks should be run either by the hotels themselves or by our alliance. This could be accomplished if the ministry sets up a meeting with the Hotel Association pointing out the inherent problems with individual excursion operators running tour desks. The main hotels in question, Jolly Beach and The St. James Club should also be urged by the ministry to change this unfair policy. Many of our members complain that since the tour desks were taken over by a competitor they have not been sold at these hotels.

B) All ABEA members must be allowed to have brochures on display at any tour desk in Antigua, and no member should be excluded from being sold by any tour operator, which is currently taking place. There are several Tour Operators like Bo Tours and Virgin Holidays (Sun Tours), which will not sell many of our member’s tours because of exclusive deals with other operators. This policy is running small members out of business and is preventing others from getting into this market.

2. Protection for indigenous operators.

A) All watersports and Excursions should be owned and operated by Antiguan or Barbudan citizens who are majority shareholders in that particular business. With all the talk of a free market economy we feel that protection of our sector made up mostly of small businesses is still important. Since 2002 many tourists have come here only to set up shop with minimal investment running similar local excursion operators out of business. Examples are Ultra Marine a dive company, Adventure Caribbean Yacht Charters, Jolly Charters, and Island Speedboats. Why are they permitted to do this? Within one week of arriving for the first time in Antigua someone can start an excursion company with their private yacht or speedboat. Usually they will be offered duty free fuel and parts as a foreign registered boat too. They must get permits through the Ministry of Tourism if they are foreign flagged boats. If they are not they there still needs to be some sort of control preventing them from setting up excursions as soon as they arrive in the country. This is totally wrong and is also running locals out of business.

B) Hotels should not be allowed to start any more excursions within their companies. There was a cabinet decision some years ago pertaining to hotels buying catamarans therefore cutting out excursion operators. This was supposedly stopped and yet we have more and more excursions being swallowed by hotels. Snorkeling excursions have to be offered outside of the hotel to keep our small businesses alive. Many small snorkeling operators and dive operators have closed recently in a directly proportional frequency to the number of similar excursions being offered by hotels in-house. For example, St. James now has a Deep Sea fishing boat and the reps are not allowed to sell any other fishing trip at all even if the guests ask for it. This is crazy!

3. Duty Free concessions and Tax structure.

A) Fuel is of major concern to most excursion operators and is a cost that has been lessened for most operators in our neighboring islands. We feel that duty free fuel for excursion operators is an essential concession that should be considered. IT would free up more money for our business to spend on marketing and training and generally improving our product. Many of the other islands in the region offer this concession to their marine operators.

B) Duty Free concessions on regular spare parts, which have to be imported. Small and large operators can be overwhelmed with the high costs of the parts alone without the burden of duty and freight. For example the average propeller in our sector landed in Antigua is US $1500. Propellers in Antigua do not last long and it is not uncommon for small operators out collecting off the shore to damage props. We are asking for the same concessions that the Marine Trades Association is asking for their sector.

C) Corporate Tax is something that needs special consideration for Excursion operators. Because of obvious liability issues, excursion operators have to operate as limited liability companies, and as a result fall into the corporate tax structure. Dealing with audited accounts and complex tax structure can be a major challenge for the small excursion operator and we urge the Government to think about the small business when coming up with the new tax system outlined in the pre-election manifesto.

4. Environmental protection of our key sites.

A) Nearly all of our members rely on a healthy Antiguan and Barbudan Natural Environment both ecologically and historically. Therefore protection and enhancement of our historical and ecological assets is essential to the survival of our sector and will help the sustainable development of the country on the whole. Protection and Enhancement will also set us apart from many of the other islands where there is very little natural or historical assets to show guests.

B) Key Marine habitats (which are made up of mangroves, flats, reefs, and offshore islands) that need immediate protection are as follows: Great Bird Island, Rabbit Island, Green Island, Guiana Island, and Exchange Island. These places are used daily by our members as essential components of their day-to-day business. They are extremely important assets, which can be there for the long term with very little capital expenditure. Most valuable assets in Antigua need large sums of money to maintain unlike these key areas. Examples of things that are threatening these environmental assets are:

i. Destruction of mangroves due to development. This has happened this year at Long Island, Maiden Island and Emerald Cove and cannot be allowed to take place in the future. These are assets which cannot easily be replaced and have such a massive benefit which man made attractions can not achieve.

ii. Destruction of flats due to dredging. Flats are a complex ecosystem not very well understood by the people of Antigua, but they are much more healthy habitats at this stage that the coral reefs (a similar system) are. For example, cockles, clams, oysters, bonefish, permit, barracuda, snapper, jacks, rays, “chicken lobster”, shrimp, crabs, live inside flats. You then have countless species of animals feeding on the as well. A good example of flats can be seen in Cades Bay along the mangrove habitat. It is also what was dredged at Maiden Island recently. Guiana Island has miles of world-class flats, which are used by our members daily to show off our healthy ecosystems.

iii. Destruction of coral reefs due to a variety of stressors, which include over fishing on the reefs, reckless anchoring, mangrove depletion, deforestation of our hillsides, and silting due to dredging or other construction practices. All of these stressors are controllable and some very easily. For example, the ABEA feels that in the key areas listed above, there should be no fishing at all allowed. This was outlined in the UPP pre-election manifesto. There are countless studies where such bans on fishing in key areas have enhanced fisheries on the whole. We are told daily that our reefs are not as good as other holiday destinations that our guests have been to. In many of the other islands where snorkeling is better than ours marine patrol boats regularly stop fishermen. Patrol boats can easily be paid for in a variety of ways without the Gov. having to spend any more money at all. For example, in the Bahamas every boat entering the waters is offered a fishing license for a fee. They are given rules as to where they can fish and to what they are permitted to catch. Also, at very popular destinations mooring balls are set up so that boats don’t have to anchor. When a yacht picks up one of these balls a fee is paid on a per day basis. These fees could be used to purchase and maintain two patrol boats to keep our reefs alive and well. I am sure that our members would be willing to contribute to this as well in some way. Our reefs, mangroves and flats are here for our children and children’s children and need to be looked after.

5. Transportation

A) We would like the government to understand that in order to provide good service for the guests from all hotels around Antigua we must be able to get the guests to our tours at a reasonable rate. Many potential guests stay in their hotels rather than pay the transportation costs to and from our excursions. Therefore we propose special rates be offered by taxi operators to tour operators so that we may include transfer in our excursion costs.

B) We also want to be able to collect guests from hotels and ships using our own transportation without fear of conflict. If a tour is US $50 per person and we have to pay cab fare of US $60 round trip for one person then it’s just not worth it.

C) We should be able to decide which taxis we can use if we are paying for the service. This way we are assured that good service is offered to our clients. The current system leaves transportation of our guests up to a line system even though we pay for the cab. This means that even if we get bad service we have to put up with it.

6. Member privilege and Member Rules.

A) One of the good things about being in an Alliance is that our members are bound by rules, which govern their general practices. A well-polished self-governing body keeps standards high and makes sure that minimum requirements are adhered to.

B) With a strong set of membership rules and regulations and a good board who can enforce them there has to be an incentive as well to adhere to them, and we feel that the privileges/concessions that are being requested from the government should only be afforded to members in good standing. For example, if we know an operator doesn’t have the correct safety gear then we will give them a warning to correct the problem. If this is not addressed then we can suspend them from the Alliance and let the authorities know. Their duty free fuel allowance could be suspended. This will make sure that members don’t break the rules.
We hope that you can see the potential of this Alliance of small local businesses, and will take into consideration how hard it is to stay “afloat” in these incredibly competitive times. With the CSME and the free market that already exists in Antigua local operators are falling by the wayside and we feel that this important sector shouldn’t go down the same road that the local restaurants did after the all-inclusives arrived on Antigua. Locally run small businesses need help and this Alliance can be seen as something to look up to if given the opportunity. We look forward to speaking with you again.

Eli Fuller, Nick Cheremeteff, Eustace Armstrong, Conrad Labarrie, Laurance Gonsalves

Antigua Barbuda Excursions Alliance

This next meeting was more of the same. I think we ended up having about five meetings at the Ministry of Tourism including meetings where the director of tourism purposely didn’t invite the Junior Minister. We met with the Ministry’s Environment officer we met with the Transport Board and time and time again we got nowhere. We tried to meet with the Minister of Tourism to explain our frustration without any success. After months and months of meetings and countless hours of hard work, telephone calls, emails, letters and more meetings I couldn’t take it anymore. I was totally convinced that my hard work was getting nowhere and that we were just being run around. Not one point on our agenda had been taken to a higher level by anyone in the Ministry and I resigned as president. The ABEA met several more times and in the end decided that until there were some big changes to the new UPP run Ministry of Tourism our strategy wasn’t going to work. Once again each of our businesses plodded along with all the problems we had before the election and found it harder and harder to operate. Taxes went up, we were refused the right to register for ABST without any consultation with our representative group. Tour boat licenses were pushed forward without any discussion with us. More and more foreign operators came into the sector. Generally the entire excursion sector suffered and no help at all was given to our organization or to the individual companies they represented.
I decided to go to the Minister of Labour. Again, getting a meeting with a minister in Antigua was extremely difficult and after months of trying I managed to get one. Jackie Quinn-Leandro sat patiently listening to my presentation. It mostly had to do with point number “2” in the letter above. The tours and excursions operators of Antigua have always been told by the former and the current government that their sector is reserved for Antiguan and Barbudans only. We have been told that no foreigners can do this type of business yet every year more and more small foreign run tour and excursion companies start up. The minister said that these people could not possibly have work permits or permission to do any such work on a radio show several weeks earlier, so I wanted to speak with her about this. After our meeting she said she would speak with the Labour Commissioner, the Coast Guard, the Minister of Tourism and the Chief Immigrations officer to come up with a proper policy that would protect local operators in this field. Several months later when she was on another call in radio show I called in to ask her about her progress. She had been talking about illegal workers with Winston Derrick. My call caught her by surprise and she made some excuses and said that she would be in touch. Nada. I called her office several times leaving messages, but nothing was done. I gave up.
Since nothing was done by any of the ministers in the Tourism department and nothing was done in the Labour department, I decided to speak with the Tax man. Lord knows Money talks and Bull s%$& walks so I knew that the Minister of Finance would listen to our concerns. Several excursion operators were very concerned by the number of new foreign boat operators running boats that were not Antiguan registered as required by law when doing day tours and excursions. Some hotels were now doing tours on their own boats too. All this time local excursion operators had to buy boats, import them to Antigua, pay duty, pay ABST and register the boats locally. Foreign boats doing tours were free from all that tax and could get parts and service tax free. Foreign boats and tours were at a competitive advantage. Errol Cort was very interested in the loop holes outlined and said something would be done to create a level playing field. I told him that local boats would love to be operating in a tax free environment if we could get it. This time I did see some action and was contacted by someone in the Ministry of Finance to get more details. That was months ago and nothing has been done since then. We are still paying 15% ABST and even higher duty on all of our imported parts while our foreign registered competitors are Tax free. I agree tax has to be paid, but why are some who don’t have proper work permits or proper permits allowed to operate at a competitive advantage?
Anyway, back in December I read in the Antigua Sun paper that there was a tourism conference being held where leaders from all the tourism related sectors were invited to attend. I called some of the other operators in our excursion sector to see if any knew about it. None did, but I decided to go anyway. Minister Lovell addressed the gathering in a “State of the industry” speech where he spoke about all the amazing projects that were coming on stream as well as the great projects that had taken place recently. He then spoke about the alleged lack of local entrepreneurs speaking about the 45 “attractions” in St. Martin and asking why we only had half of that number here. He mentioned the Zip Line tour company here saying that we needed more of these types of companies and encouraged locals to be more visionary and to invest money into the sector that he alleged was severely lacking substance. After he spoke I told him I had a problem with his allegation and that I also had a problem with him calling on Antiguan’s to blindly jump into this market. The TV cameras and radio station mikes were live and I almost felt bad saying the things I had to say, but his speech was a slap in the face of all Antigua and Barbuda excursion companies who have been struggling to stay afloat for the past five years while asking his ministry and his government for much needed help. I told him that I had no doubt at all that Antiguan businessmen would be at a competitive disadvantage if they entered this market. I told him I had been trying to meet with him about this for some time. He said this was untrue and that his door was always open to me. Bla bla bla. If he accused me of telling tales then I could handle it because as long as I could get something done for the people in our sector it mattered very little. The next morning I called the ministry to set up this meeting once again. There were 13 or 14 telephone numbers in the book for the Ministry of Tourism and I called every single one that day without getting a reply to one of those numbers. I spent one hour calling and decided to do some other work. The next day I tried again and after twenty five minutes before I finally was able to speak with the Minister’s secretary. She told me that I was wrong to attack the minister in the way I did two days before, but told me she would organize a meeting. The first meeting finally came and I was called to say the minister had the flu. The second meeting came and I was told by email that the Minister had to go off island last minute. I emailed back and said I was willing to meet at any time that the minister would be available. Time and time again I tried to set this meeting up and in the end stopped getting replies from the several people within the Ministry of Tourism cc’s on the email.
Six weeks after the Minister told me that his door was open to me on before a live audience I attended a birthday party where I ran into local radio host Winston Derrick. I told him about my trouble meeting with the minister. He got very frustrated and said he would organize the meeting for me. Sure enough within a few days I was given a date to meet once again with the Minister.
The meeting was very productive with Minister Lovell, the Director of Tourism, Mr. Marshal and another technician attending. We went over two parts of the letter above and the minister gave direction to his director and technician to do certain research and to get back together in two weeks. One of the things that he asked the director to do was to find out how other islands like Barbados and St. Lucia dealt with the excursion sector. He left us to off to Cabinet where he was late. Two weeks later I emailed the director to see how things were going and to remind him that he said he was going to be sending me a letter inviting the Antigua and Barbuda Excursion Alliance to get their board together to come and meet with him at the Ministry. No reply. Another week passed and I emailed them all again. No reply. At the cocktail party recently for the opening of the RORC 600 I saw all three men at the same time and Lovell asked me how things were going. I told him that nothing had been done (the truth) and urged him to try to help move this matter along. Not a thing was done.
There is more I suppose and I could go on and on about the Ministry of Environment and how disastrous they have been on getting things done or even worse on stopping bad things from happening. The mining of all the sand out of Mckinnons Swamp and again at FFries Bay was unforgivable mainly because you had educated officers in the Environment Ministry writing letters asking the DCA and Minister of Tourism to issue stop orders only to have those letters ignored. Sand was taken and some people got rich. Terrible things have happened environmentally all over Antigua with the highly educated “technicians” in the Ministry of Environment pleading with the Minister and the Development and Control Authority to stop the destruction only to be ignored. What is the point of the Ministry of Environment if they have no power at all. Their educated opinions are cast aside like the mangroves that have been dug up or the sand mining regulations that would have stopped trucks from taking away white sand from our land.
I don’t know if I would openly call the UPP corrupt, but I am telling you some stories in this blog about things that actually happened. There are many rumors and stories about corruption in certain parts of the UPP government to do with sand and trucking and lots of other things, but I don’t know about them to say they are true or not. You know i blogged about some of the perceived corruption within the sand mining sector as well as how badly i thought John Maginley looked after the residentas and businesses in the Coolidge area and can read more (if you have time) here on that in this link. As I said earlier there are also loads of stories about the ALP who were in power five years ago, and I just can’t understand why none of these guys get into trouble. These stories here that I mention are true because I was part of them.
It’s been five years of trying to get something on the letter reprinted above ticked off and accomplished and nothing has been done. It is extremely depressing when you work hard to encourage people to do their jobs and nothing at all is accomplished.
We vote in a general election in just a few days and like many on this twin island state I am lost as what to do. Many of us voted for the UPP so that we could vote the old ALP out of power. It won’t be the same this time as the UPP are now in power. Some of those same ALP people are still running to be re-elected, but is the threat of having a few of the old ALP at the helm enough to make us vote again for the UPP? The cost of living has gone up in this country so much in the past five years with more tax than most people can handle. Many Antiguans have left to look for work outside of the country where life is easier. I have a pilot friend tell me that after doing his accounts he discovered that after the first four years that the UPP got into power he had paid an additional EC $62,000 in tax and the cost of living for him had also gone up considerably. The road from his house to his job was no better and neither was his healthcare. The things we had hoped to see have not materialized magically and many of us wonder how long it will take for the huge tax increases we are incurring will be turned into something tangible. After 28 years of non stop leadership the old Bird run ALP party finally were kicked out of power five years ago because it was felt that they were just too corrupt. The stories had to have some truth. After only five years in power the UPP today have plenty stories of corruption being thrown at them too and with the stories of mismanagement and neglect I am totally lost. Is the new APL really new? If not will their leadership give us a better standard of living? Will there be positive changes to the UPP or will it be another five years of the same? I know I don’t like how the Antiguan excursion operators have been treated by the UPP and I don’t think there will be positive changes in the near future, but the thought of one or two of the former ALP clan running this island is scary.