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The islands of opportunity boast big-ticket investments

Article - May 27, 2015

Elected as Antigua and Barbuda’s youngest ever Prime Minister in June 2014, Gaston Browne has wasted no time in implementing his bold promise to make the tiny twin-island nation the “economic powerhouse” of the Caribbean

Entering office on a wave of optimism following a decade of rule by the United Progressive Party, Browne’s Labour government quickly set about approving investment projects worth more than $3 billion in its first six months.

“One of our biggest competitive advantages is our Prime Minister,” says Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Charles Fernandez. “He is very well-rounded and knows what is needed to bring the country back onto a sustainable financial footing. We have all the necessary ingredients for success; what we needed was someone with the vision to create opportunities for the people of Antigua and Barbuda. I think the Prime Minister is most ably suited to that role.”

Big-ticket investment projects approved since June 2014 include Singulari, a $1 billion mega resort sanctioned for development on islands previously owned by disgraced financier Allen Stanford. Spearheaded by Chinese investment firm Yida International, the 1,600-acre resort will include several luxury hotels, hundreds of private homes, a school, hospital, marinas, golf courses, an entertainment district, a horse racetrack and the Caribbean’s biggest casino.

American investors have also seen the potential in Antigua and Barbuda. Among them is Hollywood legend Robert De Niro, who was named special economic envoy of the Caribbean nation by the Prime Minister late last year. Mr. De Niro is one of the major investors behind the $250 million project to transform the K-Club on Barbuda into a luxury resort for affluent tourists.

While welcoming this investment, Arthur Manoah Nibbs, Minister of Barbuda Affairs, vowed development would not come at the expense of the renowned tranquility of Antigua’s sister island, which has a population of just 1,638 and was once a favorite hideaway of the late Princess Diana.

“We have to preserve the natural charms of Barbuda because people are clamoring to find new destinations that are not concrete jungles,” says Mr. Nibbs. “We are promoting Barbuda as a five-star destination. We are not going after mass tourism, we want to attract high-end tourists who will spend the big bucks.”

Although these eye-catching new investments promise to enhance the image of the islands, Antigua and Barbuda has long been known as a paradise destination in the eastern Caribbean.

“When you look at our key source markets, the U.K., the U.S. and Canada, we offer the perfect winter escape,” says Neil Forrester, General Manager of Antigua Hotels and Tourist Association. “We guarantee sunshine, turquoise seas, and an escape from the stress of your everyday business life. We have 365 beaches, which we could argue are 365 of the best beaches in the Caribbean. And we have a rich history, with attractions such as Nelson’s Dockyard and the sugar plantations. I would say we offer the authentic Caribbean experience. As our slogan says: the beach is just the beginning.”

Yachting and sailing is one niche market that continues to attract a steady stream of affluent visitors to Antigua. They are drawn partly by a calendar of world-renowned events including the Charter Yacht Show in December and Sailing Week in April.

“Sailors love Antigua because we have fantastic bays,” says Carlo Falcone, owner of the Antigua Yacht Club Marina Resort. “Part of the beauty of Antigua is that it is not overly developed yet. I was speaking to some captains who base themselves here and they tell me it is because Antigua is the real Caribbean.”

Bobby Reis, General Manager of the nearby Falmouth Harbor Marina, thinks the economic benefits of this niche market are not fully appreciated. “A study done back in 2004 showed that the contribution made by the yachting industry is a lot more than the cruise ship industry,” he says. “The cruise ship industry gets all the publicity and all of the marketing dollars go in that direction and the yachting industry is basically left to fend for itself. More attention will have to be paid to how we market and nurture our industry, as it creates a lot of employment.”

Antigua and Barbuda hopes to attract more tourists from the U.S. and other key markets through its new airport terminal situated just outside the capital St. John’s, which is scheduled to open in the first half of 2015. Built at a cost of $97 million and capable of processing 1,777 passengers an hour, the airport will boast 35 retail, food and beverage outlets, as well as a first-class lounge overlooking the sea.

“The new airport will have a significant impact on the tourism product,” says Antigua and Barbuda Airport Authority CEO, Stanley E. Smith. “Antigua is considered a destination for high-end tourism and the new building is being constructed to accommodate this type of passenger.”

“It is also important for arrival numbers because airlines need to be assured that the turnaround of their aircraft is accomplished in the shortest possible time. We are working with the airlines to assure them that once they arrive, their passengers will be processed seamlessly,” Mr. Smith adds.

In addition to the new airport, the Prime Minister announced in December 2014 that Antigua’s main seaport at St. John’s would be transformed in a $255 million project led by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation. Port Authority CEO Darwin Telemaque believes the concurrent developments at the airport and seaport will transform the island into a regional hub for cargo and logistics. 

“Geographically, Antigua is well positioned in the middle of a chain of islands and it is the only one in the region that has multiple daily connectivity to almost every island in the Caribbean through LIAT airline,” says Mr. Telemaque. “That unique feature has not really been utilized to date for the major commercial benefit of Antigua and the wider region, and I think that is something that can be changed – particularly with a brand new airport soon to open in Antigua, which can facilitate larger air cargo flights into the country. That cargo can be subsequently ferried onwards either by air or sea, which means Antigua has great potential as a logistics center.”

Senator Michael Freeland, the Executive Chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Free Trade and Processing Zone, agrees: “Our position in relation to Europe, Africa, the U.S., and Latin America places us in a great position to handle transshipment and to be a financial center,” the dynamic first-term senator says.

Prime Minister Browne, who spent much of his career working in finance, has pledged to revive Antigua and Barbuda as an offshore financial center. Global Bank of Commerce Chairman Brian Stuart-Young says the nation is opening itself up to more opportunities for doing business with Latin America, as well as Asia and Europe.

“I think that we provide excellent opportunities for Latin American clients and businesses whose own jurisdictions are not conducive to international commerce, and are seeking banking services to support their requirements for buying and selling commodities,” Mr. Stuart-Young says.

After emerging from the 2014 UN General Assembly as a champion for small island developing states (SIDS), observers are wondering what message the Prime Minister will take to the Summit of the Americas in Panama. 

“Being small should not prevent us from being important, and I think that the Prime Minister is saying that size is not an excuse,” foreign affairs and international trade minister Mr. Fernandez says. “We intend to make Antigua, as he said, ‘the economic powerhouse of the Caribbean.’ Singapore is smaller than Antigua, but it is considered a powerhouse of a country. The Prime Minister will try to get international investors and all Antiguans to buy into that vision.”