Interview with Charles Fernandez, Minister of Tourism, Civil Aviation, Transportation and Investment, Antigua and Barbuda

Interview with Charles Fernandez, Minister of Tourism, Civil Aviation, Transportation and Investment, Antigua and Barbuda


Prisma Reports (PR): Tourism is the main pillar of Antigua and Barbuda’s economy. In 2022, you joined the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which seeks to encourage sustainability efforts in the sector. How else is Antigua and Barbuda working toward protecting its environments?

Charles Fernandez (CF): Antigua, Barbuda and Redonda — the country’s three islands — have the largest ocean footprint of any of the island nations in the Eastern Caribbean. We have a huge ocean space that we need to protect. We believe and are all agreed that efforts toward sustainability are very important, because our natural environment is what we market and sell to tourists. If we can’t protect it, then we are basically hurting ourselves.

To that end, apart from what we’re doing in terms of investing in solar and other alternative energies on land, we have ongoing projects in Barbuda and Antigua to replant coral reefs. We are also working on marking all our reefs, so that we don’t have yachts coming in, running the ground and damaging them. It takes about 30 years for a reef to regrow and it can be destroyed in less than 30 minutes. That is something that we’re very concerned about. In addition, the government has just agreed to ban certain sunscreen products, as some of their ingredients cause damage to the reefs as well, and we are in the process of putting up moorings, because a lot of the boats currently dropping anchors are damaging the seabed and sea grass.

We are also in the process of looking at the different types of mangroves that we grow: there are some varieties that are more absorbent of carbon emissions than others and those are the ones that we are now looking to expand out in various areas. We’re not only protecting our mangroves, but we’re also looking to expand them. Those are just some of the efforts that we’re making in terms of sustainability.


PR: What incentives do you offer investors in Antigua and Barbuda and can you provide some examples of opportunities those investors are currently taking up?

CF: The incentives vary according to the level of investment. There could be tax holidays, for example, and we also give incentives in terms of building materials, furniture and fixtures when projects are going to start. Some of the things that we definitely will allow include hotel properties investing in their own solar energy plants or water plants, in terms of reverse osmosis projects that allow them to drill for their own water.

If someone invests in a solar energy project, we will work with them to sell their generation directly to the utility company. Investments in that area could involve build-own-operate-transfer projects, or it could be a situation where investors build, operate and sell to the utility company directly.

At present, we also have a U.S. company partnering with a local company on a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, which is a fuel that ships have to move to by 2025. Those companies will be able to sell LNG to the cruise ships that come to Antigua and Barbuda. We have expanded our port and are going to have more ships coming in, so being able to offer LNG is a big thing for us as not many other islands in the Caribbean can offer it to cruise ships.

In the tourism sector, we had some projects planned before COVID-19 that have started since the pandemic ended and investments in that sector have ramped up to pre-COVID levels. For example, we have the Nikki Beach project that’s going to be starting very soon, the Royalton Chic that is replacing the old Halcyon has already started, Jolly Beach is now open and is being upgraded. In addition, the Nobu Hotel involving Robert de Niro is going to be starting this year in Barbuda, the billion-dollar PLH project is continuing in Barbuda and the Hawksbill Hotel in Antigua is being refurbished. A Sandals project will hopefully start before the end of the year — it is going to be a major upgrade and will add about 70 rooms.

I previously mentioned the investment project at our cruise port, which is going to cover about 50,000 square feet on the land side. Global Ports Holdings is doing that. We’ve already completed a fifth berth at the port and we’re now completing the dredging to allow for Oasis-class cruise ships. Additionally, a project at our cargo port that is already completed involved an investment of over $100 million. We now have the most modern cargo port in the Caribbean and we will have a much upgraded cruise port. Those are some of the investment projects that we are presently turning out.


PR: The Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States will be held in Antigua and Barbuda this year. What are major challenges that a small state island like yours is facing at the moment?

CF: In terms of the environment, sargassum seaweed is big challenge for all of the islands: if beaches are affected by the seaweed, the associated hotels invariably have to close. That is a serious threat affecting all of us and even the east coast of the U.S. Added to that is the fact that global warming is causing the oceans to be a lot warmer, which is a threat in terms of hurricanes. We have seen more hurricanes and we’ve seen category 5 hurricanes becoming more prevalent in the Caribbean. And again, when you have the oceans rising, you then have a problem when your beaches start to disappear. In addition, you lose the coral reefs, you lose that protection of the beaches and you lose sea life. That has a tremendous impact on, for example, the ability to sell snorkeling tours to visitors and the ability of fishermen to sell their produce straight from the sea to the table in hotels. The economic sectors being affected are not just tourism directly, but others that are associated to it too.


PR: Antigua and Barbuda will hold its biggest travel conference in June. What are your expectations for that conference?

CF: The main thrust of it is for Caribbean tourism ministers to meet and exchange ideas, to look at concerns and issues, to see how we can come up with best practices and also to ensure that we have some conformity on a number of issues and how we go forward together on those. It is a lot more productive for us to move as a team than to move individually. We will look at marketing the region, we will look at threats to the region and we will look at benefits for the region — basically to see how we can move forward with best practices together, after exchanging ideas and having open discussions.


PR: Is Antigua and Barbuda’s low crime rate when compared to the rest of the Caribbean a competitive advantage for the country?

CF: I would like to say that a threat to one is a threat to all. Antigua enjoys a very low crime rate and we take that very seriously. However, there has been an increase in rate through the region, which is something that the leaders of the Caribbean have had to address. We realize that the threat to part of the Caribbean is a threat to all of the Caribbean. So, even though Antigua and Barbuda is still the lowest in terms of crime rate, we take the threat very seriously and are doing everything we can to see what we can do to continue to mitigate against that threat.


PR: You are a member of the Wellness Tourism Association. What are your goals in the wellness space?

CF: There is a definite need for wellness tourism as many people are concerned about their health. Antigua and Barbuda has the best climate in terms of sunshine and tropical breezes, plus it has beautiful ocean waters. That, in and of itself, is enough to bring wellness. But added to that, we have passed legislation and now have, for example, stem-cell clinics operating locally that are well regulated. We also have a medical cannabis industry that is very well regulated. We are marketing Antigua and Barbuda as a tourism destination for all aspects of wellness and we think we are in a good position to do that.


PR: Has the COVID pandemic had any long-term impact on tourism in Antigua and Barbuda?

CF: We’ve learned a lot from the pandemic and, even though we say we’ve come out of it, it’s still around. As a result of that, we’ve had to adjust not just the way we do things, but also the way we market ourselves. For example, we promote the fact that we have 365 beaches. There is no overcrowding on our beaches, there is space for everybody, there is sun for everybody and, of course, there is fun for everybody. Those are things that I’d want to stress: we’re still concerned for the safety of our visitors and our locals alike and, rest assured, we are still very much aware that COVID is lingering out there and we will continue to put safety first.


PR: What would be your final message to our readers?

CF: Antigua and Barbuda is one of the safest, if not the safest, country in the region for visitors and locals alike. That is something that’s very important to us. I would also like to note that, in terms of developing our tourism offering, we are moving to encourage more local experiences and to expand our community tourism. For example, we have recently held an art week, a restaurant week and a sailing week.

When you come to Antigua and Barbuda, especially because our crime rate is very low, we have no hesitation in having you go out into the various communities and experiencing the real local cuisine, culture and so on. That is something that we are pushing: getting all visitors into our communities to really experience what we, as locals, have experienced all our lives.



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