More than two years after suffering massive damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria the island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten continues its efforts towards recovery. But as the peak winter visitor season approaches the challenges the island faces in rebuilding have perhaps never been more pointed. And the split between the French and Dutch sides of the island is perhaps more real than ever. To the point that some roads/borders are being closed as a result.
I visited the island six months ago for the Caribbean Aviation Festival. I even took an extra couple days and rented a car to explore the island again, to take in the recovery efforts and see how the tourism infrastructure was recovering. n the Dutch side evidence of damage remained, but it also presented a “business as usual” feel in many cases. Some hotels are still rebuilding, but many are open and the infrastructure mostly welcomes visitors.
Cross to the French side of the island, however, and the storm damage is much more visible. Recovery is not coming quickly on the northern side of the island. The impact of that slower recovery appeared – at that time – to mostly be affecting locals, not tourists. Hotel room inventory was down significantly but if you could find a room the restaurants and bars and excursions that catered to visitors mostly were in good shape. That’s the experience I had at Orient Bay and other neighborhoods as I explored the island.
Alas, the lack of recovery for the locals spilled over to much larger problems this winter.
Reports on the island last week had some local bandits/gangs closing roads and extorting “tolls” for travelers to cross the border. The US and Canadian governments issued travel warnings (admittedly at their lowest levels) about visits to the French side of the island.
The French government sent in 80 gendarmes, repositioned from Guadeloupe, to help quell the troubles. And by most accounts their presence is helping. But not enough. Traffic on the island was already bad, especially at the couple pinch points where the roads cross the border. With the closures in place that only worsens the problems.
The protests are driven in part by questions around double standards on reconstruction priorities and permissions. The so-called “red zone” areas, regions likely to see severe flooding again with a future storm, as supposed to be off limits for development. But some approvals have been granted. Those are perceived to be driven by wealth and race. For those who are denied permission to rebuild the State will condemn the land and take it over. It is an ugly situation and the delays in coming to a resolution further fan the flames of unrest.
Combine those challenges with an already weak economy on the French side of the island and slower tourism recovery and the unrest begins to make some sense. Locals are frustrated and have limited options for recourse available.
As much as it hurts to say so, avoiding the French side of the island appears to be the smart choice for now. And maybe for a while. Until real progress is made on the reconstruction planning and efforts the chance of a recurrence is probably not worth the risk.
It is truly a shame, as the airport reconstruction (finally, much later than it should have) secured the IMF-backed funding it needs to complete the project. The work is underway and while the terminal is not a great passenger experience today, it is coming along. But if the French side cannot stabilize and get the rebuilding underway demand may suffer.
At least the plane spotting at Maho Beach on the Dutch side is mostly unaffected.
Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.