Interview with Ernest Hilaire, Ministry of Tourism, Investment, Creative Industries, Culture and Information

Interview with Ernest Hilaire, Ministry of Tourism, Investment, Creative Industries, Culture and Information

 

St. Lucia proudly claimed the title of “Best Caribbean Island” in the prestigious 2023 Readers’ Choice Awards. This esteemed accolade, reflecting the island’s exceptional beauty and hospitality, stands as a significant milestone for the country’s thriving tourism industry. Can you share specific initiatives or unique aspects that you believe contributed to St. Lucia’s recognition?

St. Lucia has extraordinary physical beauty, as well as the warmth and hospitality of our people. There are so many noticeable and historical facts about St. Lucia that lends itself to the nation having received such accolades. For example, St. Lucia has the perfect balance between beautiful beaches, but also a stunning landscape – mountains, rivers, hiking trails, and forests – and if you are looking for that balance between beaches as well as physical landscape, you cannot go beyond St. Lucia.

In fact, St. Lucia is called Helen of the West, and there is a reason why. In ancient times, we all know of Helen of Troy: the most beautiful female that lived. When the settlers first came and saw the beautiful St. Lucia, they said this is comparable to the Helen of Troy, this is Helen of the West. So much so, that St. Lucia is the only sovereign state named after a woman, Santa Lucia, and it is because of that comparison with the Helen of Troy.

In St. Lucia, you will see that physical beauty from the Pitons, the waterfalls, the rivers, and of course, the people. We have a very vibrant Creole mix of French and English. We were also very famous for the fact that there were 14 wars for the ownership of St. Lucia. We were seven times British and seven times French. We kept changing hands, as the two main powers fought for ownership.

There were several reasons why they fought so much for St Lucia: the fact that we have the safest harbor as all the other islands in the Caribbean have exposed harbors. St. Lucia has the Castries which is a sail-in harbor. And of course, the surrounding mountains overlooking the city allowed for better defense of the city center. We were an attraction for the English and an attraction for the French and that has left us with a very rich French Creole history.

We are Catholics, even if we were an English colony at the end, so we are not Protestants but Catholics. Our Criminal Code is English, but our Civil Code is French. Although we were an English colony, we were allowed to speak French. You will see that the names of the places in St. Lucia are still French, our gastronomy is still French, and our music is heavily French.

You have that Creole vibrancy in the population. When you add the physicality and sheer beauty of St. Lucia as an island, it is very easy to see why we can be chosen as the best Caribbean destination. We have also been awarded the title of the Best Honeymoon Destination for almost 14 years.

 

In August 2023, a remarkable achievement in St. Lucia’s tourism sector was showcased, with a substantial 12% increase in visitor arrivals year-on-year. What factors do you attribute to this impressive growth, and how is the ministry contributing to and fostering this substantial upswing in tourism?

In the post-COVID-19 era, just about everywhere, there was an increase in tourism as people wanted to get out. COVID-10 kind of traumatized our civilization as they were very restricted in their movements. The moment it started opening, everybody wanted to let loose. Not all parts of the world opened at the same time. The Caribbean was a leading destination for persons wanting to travel, and St. Lucia especially, because we opened very early, from July 2021, seeking the right balance between saving lives and opening the economy.

St. Lucia, by itself, is a natural attraction and a very attractive destination. Our greatest limitation is just the number of hotel rooms. While we do not have a large number of rooms, we offer some very selective attractions. We went out and started promoting St. Lucia as a destination of choice. We placed a lot of emphasis on highlighting our sustainable tourism practices and we launched a Community Tourism Program, where we started to say do not come for resort-based experiences, come for community-based experiences so you experience the authentic St. Lucia. You can go into the communities, the bars, the restaurants, and attend our cultural events. They have gained greater prominence. We have put in a lot of resources in recent years into our cultural expressions and traditions.

It started to pay off almost immediately. Last year, we were voted the Caribbean leading destination for nature and adventure. This award was due to the increased attention we have given give to adventure activities, such as horseback riding, hiking, bird watching, or diving. We started to open up all those experiences like never before and increasingly placed more emphasis on cultural expressions. We are developing all those components and making us ever more attractive.

 

What opportunities for investment exist in St. Lucia, and what incentives are on offer?

Most of our investment now comes via real estate and the tourism sector hospitality. For example, on the northern tip of the island, the Cabot, which is our newest development, is building one of the world’s best golf courses right now. This is a totally new component of our tourism sector, very ultra-luxury. A lot of it is villa-based and residential-based tourism, away from the traditional tourism hotel block. Everybody has a room now, so they will attract more high-end families. That is an exceptional offering that St. Lucia has.

Our real estate sector is booming. It all links to the hospitality sector because those villas now go on the market, and it can attract its clientele. We have also seen a lot of investment in tours, excursions and experiences.

Meanwhile, agro-processing is also another big area for us that we have developed. If you visit Soufrière you can see Hotel Chocolat’s cocoa estate, promoting organic, sustainable agricultural practices, and producing some of the best cocoa in the world. They have a small hotel and offer all kinds of chocolate products. It is a fantastic experience.

Jade Mountain is probably one of our most famous resorts. It has the most spectacular view of the UNESCO Piton twin peaks and is probably our most sought-after resort. They also have their own chocolate experience as the chocolate grown in St. Lucia is of very rich quality and attracts a premium price.

In the last few years, we have also seen a significant increase in the export of sea moss. It is a very high protein drink, a superfood, and fabled to have many famous qualities. We export quite a lot, especially to the Middle East. We are developing a sea moss experience so people can see how it is processed from harvesting, all the way up to making the gel, the tablets, and the protein drinks out.

We make quite a lot of condiments, including banana ketchup, not tomato ketchup. Agro-processing offers a lot of possibilities, like jams, sweets, chocolates, and seasonings. We do quite a lot already, but still have space to grow.

The government is always looking for partnerships to improve the infrastructure on the island as we develop, particularly in housing, water supply, electricity generation, etc. There is a lot of scope for investors who want to be part of that.

St. Lucia offers an extremely generous suite of incentives from corporation tax exemption, income tax exemption, and import duty exemptions on goods that are required for the construction and operation of those factories and different developments around the island. We offer support for persons who bring in specialized workers and employees. On the financial side, the government also provides generous incentives to ensure that developers can get the necessary financing, especially if they are going to bring in capital.

 

How is your ministry working to increase the contribution of the cruise sector to GDP?

The cruise industry has rebounded well after COVID-19. Globally, 2019 was the best year for travel, but this calendar year is going to be our best yet, with this cruise season also going to set new records. The cruise season for the Caribbean usually runs from October to March. Then, we start seeing the decline as the ships head to Europe and the Mediterranean.

We have just signed a deal with Global Ports Holding (GPH). They manage several ports around the world in terms of cruise services. We will see a substantial upgrade to our port, including a new route so passengers leaving the cruise liners for the city center will have a completely new experience. The vendors’ arcade will be revamped as it is almost 40 years old. Fishermen’s Village will be built there so passengers can tender from this side, to go to the other side to get their coaches and taxis, to go on tours around the island and avoid having to drive through the traffic in the city center.

Regarding our waterfront, which is, so far, the most visited place in St. Lucia because of the Pitons, the entire waterfront will be redeveloped in the next few years to enhance the experience and to make it a lot more enchanting.

The cruise industry is significant for us. We try to encourage passengers to get off the ships, visit St. Lucia, and visit different places, because the expenditure goes directly to ordinary people. If you think about stayover, almost 60% of our stayover per night is accommodation costs. When the cruise passengers get into St. Lucia, and they go through the villages, the sites, and the attractions, a higher percentage of that dollar goes directly to the local experiences.

Of course, we watch the cruise sector’s numbers and make sure they are manageable and sustainable. If we assume 3,000-4000 passengers went out on tours on different excursions and spent at least $75 each, it highlights the impact of the cruise sector on local economies. It is important for us, and it will grow over the next few years.

What unique advantages and features does the Citizenship by Investment (CBI) program in St. Lucia offer?

The CBI program is a major initiative for us. The industry itself is an industry that is sometimes not properly understood by critics, perhaps because it is not properly regulated and is still in its infancy. However, for islands like us, the CBI is a very important and very significant source of revenue.

If you look at our economic indicators, we come across as middle to high-income countries. But a lot of that wealth does not stay in the country. A lot of it doesn’t filter down to all the communities. When we go out to get commercial loans, we must pay commercial rates. It has interest payments. We do not get concessionary rates, because they say look at your indicators, you are not as poor as some other countries, why should you get concessionary rates? It means when we look for money for development financing, it is expensive for us. Therefore, governments like ours are always challenged because we have to borrow at high rates.

Our vulnerability is also very high, especially to natural disasters. If a hurricane hits Fort Lauderdale, life goes on in Miami, in Texas, in South Carolina, and in New York. When a hurricane hits St. Lucia, we lose 10-15 years of development, roads disappear, and houses are blown away. When we take a loan to build a bridge and a road, because a hurricane has destroyed it, and it is repaired, and four years later, another hurricane comes and destroys it, we still have to repay that loan. And we now need to go get another loan to repair the bridge that was repaired because of the last storm. We have bridges in St. Lucia for which we are paying two loans. It is hard to explain the vulnerability of these islands. The impact of a major storm is different from the impact of a powerful storm in Fort Lauderdale.

One, our development financing is expensive; two, our vulnerability is so high. What does the CBI do? The CBI, by allowing us to offer citizenship for investment, opens a new stream of financing for us. When you become a citizen and you pay $100,000 into the National Economic Fund, we do not have to repay that $100,000. The government can raise substantial revenue for developmental purposes that otherwise it would not be able to get. The issues of how the industry is managed must be separated from the impact that it has on us positively. I wanted to start by saying that to give you the context as to why those programs are important. Even in terms of real estate investment, it makes investing easier for the developer when he can recoup a percentage of his investment from the CBI. It reduces the money he has to borrow.

Why is St. Lucia successful? Because, from the start, we said we wanted to promote our citizenship program as what we call beyond the passport. It is not a transactional industry for us but an interactional industry and we want persons who are becoming citizens of St. Lucia to want to be part of our landscape. That will not happen for every applicant. Some people just want the convenience of a second citizenship, and by extension, a second passport. They want it for security reasons, for ease of travel, for taxpayers’ purposes, and they do not care about the broader issues. But we keep saying it matters to us. We will keep saying to you, when you become a citizen of St. Lucia, we want you to be part of the landscape.

For example, we recently signed a deal for a new hotel development. The chairman of the company is a citizen of St. Lucia through the CBI. In the last year, as Minister of Tourism, I have had to lead through, and the Cabinet of Ministers, at least three or four investments in St. Lucia that came from people who became citizens of St. Lucia. We were able to say to them that when you become a citizen, become part of the landscape, visit St. Lucia.

You are not required to, but do come and visit St. Lucia, do come, and invest in St. Lucia, do come, and buy your houses, do come, and invest in property. We have seen some of that. We will continue to push and to get more persons. We are saying to you this is more than just getting a passport. This is a lifestyle we are offering; this is an opportunity for you to be part of our landscape. It has worked well for us, and I expect the program to grow even more. We still want St. Lucia as a brand and want it elevated because of the new citizens we are getting. Also, because of how we portray our island, and the opportunity for investment, for tourism, for the lifestyle that we offer. We will see considerable progress in the program.

 

How does the Ministry plan to support and facilitate the growth and development of young entrepreneurs in their understanding and pursuit of investment opportunities?

I am one of the biggest supporters of the Youth Employment Agency (YEA). It falls under the Prime Minister. They have primary responsibility, and the Prime Minister’s Office, for driving the Youth Economy Agency.

We do not have a tradition in the region, and maybe in many parts of the world, of taking a chance on young people. We talk a lot about young people, and we talk a lot about young people being the future, but not recognizing that they are also the present and that countries must invest in young people. Just like they have high risk investments, and there are moderate risk and low risk, in some ways, investing in young people can be high risk, because they have not had years of experience in business, they have not had the trading nurturing, and sometimes not even the discipline that you would expect from more accomplished and experienced investors. You put money in their hands, and maybe it might not work. It might fail, and therefore, you would count that as a loss. To me, that is not a loss. The nurturing of young people to become successful entrepreneurs is not a loss.

 

The Cultural Development Foundation (CDF) of Saint Lucia serves as the canvas, stage, and creative hub for the nation’s cultural narrative. Can you highlight specific success stories or notable achievements resulting from the CDF’s support?

We are in the process of redesigning the CDF to make it a lot more proactive to deal with those issues. In 2016, we changed the Jazz Festival to the Jazz and Arts Festival 2016. Then there was a change of government and that was reversed. We brought back the Jazz and Arts Festival into 2023 and we brought it back with a full focus on jazz and arts, adding spoken word, fashion, visual arts, and performing arts. We are going to bring it back again. All that is under the CDF.

We have a very rich history in St Lucia. We have what is called the Flower Festivals. There are two flower societies, the “Roses” and the “Marguerites”. One festival is in August, the other in October. It comes from the time of slavery. They always have contests between themselves. You do not have that in any place in the world. It is a very big part of our cultural heritage. They mimic European society. That came out from slave society so the former slaves would mimic what they saw, and they paraded on the streets dressed as lawyers, doctors, etc., mimicking colonial society because they were not part of it, and they sang songs. Now the songs have evolved singing about each other. One says one flower is more aristocratic, the other is more working-class. It is like an order.

Every October is our Creole Heritage Month. It is the best time of the year. That is when we celebrate everything Creole. We dress in creole wear. Especially now, in this present era, we have designers designing creole cloth. You can buy it and wear your Creole outfit. The food, the music, and the vibe are all Creole. It is an explosion of our creolness which is a melting pot. Some people dress in the Madras way which is in India, or you have the African wear.

There was a time when speaking Creole was prohibited in this country when the English were trying to stamp it out, but most people spoke Creole rather than English. We had a renaissance in Creole speaking and it is now a fundamental part. Creole is spoken in Louisiana, Mauritius, St Lucia, Dominica, and Haiti although it is more French there than our Creole.

For us, the CDF is an important agency, and it plays a major part in bringing forth cultural expressions and preserving them. We are reshaping it, and we want to focus more on the establishment of a creative economy that is linked to the youth economy because a lot of the creatives are young people. We are investing a lot in training and developing in music, fashion design, arts and crafts, and visual arts. In the next few years, you will see an explosion of the creative economy.

 

Can you name some of the most famous artists or sportspeople of St Lucia?

We have one unique achievement in St. Lucia: we have produced two Nobel laureates. For a country of this size, to have produced a pair Nobel laureates, I do not know any other country with a higher ratio per population than St. Lucia. Derek Alton Walcott was a poet and playwright. He received the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature. Sir William Arthur Lewis was a development economist. In 1979 he won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.

In more recent times, probably our most noted sportsman would be Daren Sammy who captained the West Indies cricket team. Sammy is the only captain to have won the World T20 twice. Presently, our most famous athlete is Julien Alfred who is looking forward to the Olympics in the 100 and 200 meters. She is one of the fastest women in the world and still young. We have very high hopes for her. Our premier visual artist right now is probably Llewellyn Xavier and during the Arts Festival, he will be doing a presentation.

 

What would be your final message to the readers of USA Today?

St. Lucia is a destination that is ready to welcome them and facilitate those who want to vacation here. Whether they are thinking of a honeymoon destination, a place to get married, a place for adventure, or an unparalleled tropical setting, St. Lucia is the place to be. If you are an investor looking for a place to invest, St. Lucia is more than willing to welcome you and offer you the enabling environment to do so. We have Invest Saint Lucia which is a one-stop shop. You get to invest in St. Lucia, and they take care of the process for you and give you the support that you want. St. Lucia is just the place where you can come and enjoy living. We do not rush life here, we enjoy life. We say that St. Lucia has the extraordinary capability to seduce you when you come here.