St. Martin’s tourism sector has endured a rough few years, beginning with the devastating Hurricane Irma in 2017 and continuing with the pandemic. Now, the tourism office is proudly proclaiming the French side of this dual-nation Caribbean island is ready to welcome visitors once again, with experiences adventurous Canadians will love.
A delegation from the St. Martin Tourist Office travelled to Canada on a three-stop road trip to spread the word. The final stop–after Montreal and Ottawa–was a media and travel advisor dinner at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York on 20OCT. The team–led by President Valérie Damaseau–provided an update on the destination's tourism product, clarity on revised entry requirements, and news on accommodation developments.
“With the return of flights to St. Martin, we said it was only normal that we made a stop over here knowing the Canadian market is one of the three top markets for us, along with the U.S. and Europe. After everything we’ve been through, we need the Canadians to know we’re open,” Damaseau told Open Jaw at the event.
“Because we lost everything in 2017, we had to rebuild and everyone had a chance to revise their product, renovate, remodel and also get a chance to get new investors to come in. We took the time to revise our product, even the menus. We’ve had a lot of remodelling and reconstruction, and now our objective is to let you know St. Martin is open and ready to receive Canadians.”
It’s been an uphill battle for the tourism sector since 2017. In 2016, St. Martin welcomed 57,000 passengers from Canada. As of the end of June 2022, Damaseau says that number was at around 14,000.
“Now that airlift is coming back, we need to let you all know that we're ready to receive you. We have a strong belief and we're confident things will come back,” Damaseau said.
Currently, Air Canada, Transat, WestJet and Sunwing all operate direct flights to the destination nicknamed the “Friendly Island.” With COVID-19 travel restrictions and vaccination requirements lifted as of 01NOV, Canadian travellers no longer need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for entry.
A destination for boutique, à la carte travel
It’s no secret that all-inclusive vacations are a hit with the Canadian market–but the island of two halves has only two all-inclusive offerings (Secrets St. Martin Resort & Spa on the French side and Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa on the Dutch side).
The thing is, they’re perfectly fine with that.
The St. Martin team urges travel advisors and Canadians to think differently about their destination, emphasizing that the diversity of gastronomy, adventure, and experience on St. Martin is one of its biggest draws. And if you go all-inclusive, you'll miss out on some special experiences.
“Just explore St. Martin. Experience it. From excursions, dining, activities, anything that you want, it all happens in St. Martin, just a few minutes away from each other. We encourage our guests to rent a car and explore because in an hour and a half, if there's no traffic, you can do the tour of the entire island, both sides. The food is so good and the experience on the whole is so wonderful,” Damaseau said.
Rather than all-inclusive resorts, the tourist office president says there are many boutique hotels and guest houses on offer, from high-end luxury villas to pleasant apartments that won’t break the bank.
“We don't have a lot of big brand name hotels. We have a lot of boutique hotels that are very intimate and reserved. We sell St. Martin à la carte. So if you want to come in a couple, or single, or with your ladies, or with the guys, or even on a business trip, we have something that suits your budget, from a boutique hotel to a guest house to an Airbnb. What's been up and rising for us is our villa product,” Damaseau said.
“We know that there's a big demand for all-inclusive hotels, but I must be honest, there aren't many in the pipeline. There's discussion with just one right now.”
St. Martin Specialist and Incentive Program Launching Soon
With this à-la-carte model, travellers often need more hands-on support in planning and booking their trip that an all-inclusive stay might require–this is where the expertise of the trade plays a critical role.
“Travel advisors play a big role because many people who want to visit have a lot of questions, like where to stay,” Aida Weinum, Director of the St. Martin Tourist Office, told Open Jaw. “We're here to talk about everything St. Martin has to offer so travel advisors can relay the information to their clients and know that doing it à-la-carte doesn't have to be that expensive. Just do what you like to do and go where the locals go.”
By the end of this year, the tourism office plans to launch a specialist and incentive program for advisors where they can learn about St. Martin, get a certificate, and win trips and awards.
“The Best of Both Worlds”
According to Mike Gatenby and Karen Grant, advisors at Plan It Travel, St. Martin is “absolutely” a destination that could win the hearts of the Canadian travel market. The duo had just visited the island on a FAM in June 2022.
“The food and the wine really stood out. Because [St. Martin’s] got this European flair, it’s like you’re in the Caribbean, but you have that European food and wine and culture,” Grant told Open Jaw.
“There are so many different options for St. Martin, starting with the culinary, beaches, adventure tourism, eco-tourism… There’s a number of different things the Canadian market would enjoy,” Gatenby added.
“They have the best of both worlds. You can do all-inclusive, or you can do boutique hotels. They have a number of different options for St. Martin that competitors don’t offer.”
The duo’s tip for selling St. Martin is to pair the right client to this destination–those looking for an experiential trip, perhaps one with a bit of European flair, would be a perfect fit.
A diversifying product attracts a younger crowd
The island destination is looking for innovative ways to broaden its appeal to tourists, attract a younger crowd, and promote its diverse offerings in a splashy way. To do this, the St. Martin Tourism Board has created different themes for each year to attract travellers and showcase what the Friendly Island has to offer.
The Year of Romance in 2021 kicked off the themed years, followed by this year’s Year of Gastronomy, with the Saint Martin Culinary Festival delighting tastebuds from 11NOV to 22NOV (which, by the way, will feature Canadian Daniel Vézina as a guest chef).
Weinum announced 2023 as The Year of Events, highlighting 10 major festivals that will be taking place across the island next year, including the SXM Festival, founded by Canadian DJ/Producer Julian Prince.
“This is a great way to explore St. Martin on the whole,” Weinum said.
Canadians seem to be taking note of St. Martin’s diversification of its brand and product offering.
“Before Irma and the pandemic, we used to get a lot of repeat customers, lots of families with their children and their grandchildren,” Weinum noted. “Now, we're seeing that the clientele is younger. They’re coming to explore the nightlife, try the cuisine, go island hopping... Every night there's somewhere to go but if you want quiet, you will find that as well.”