07 Jun Interview with Charles Fernandez, Minister of Tourism, Investment and Economic Affairs, Antigua & Barbuda
Minister of Tourism, Investment and Economic Affairs, Antigua & Barbuda, Mr. Charles Fernandez, tells us what the Caribbean nation has been doing to ramp up its economy and attract digital nomads from abroad.
You have been involved in politics in the country since the mid-1980s and were appointed Minister of Tourism and Economic Development in 2018. To begin the interview, can you tell us about your professional background and how these experiences inform your day-to-day work as Minister?
I actually joined the party of which I am in government with in the mid-80s. In 1995 the then prime minister appointed me to the senate. I served there from 1995 until 2004, and then I got elected for the first time in the Law House in 2014 and again in 2018. In 2014 I was the Minister of Foreign Affairs and, in 2018, my portfolio shifted to tourism and investment. When I was in the senate, I got the experience of how government works, as well as experience in terms of the legislative access and legislative process of the government, so that was important from that perspective.
In terms of being appointed to several boards, the first one was the free trade and processing zone and then the other one was the medical benefits board. I was chair of both of those boards concurrently. All of these things culminated to allow me to gain that experience in terms of the statutory aspect of the government and the legislative aspect of the government.
I worked in the private sector in the family business up until 2014 when I was elected, and I also was able to mix with a number of business operators in Antigua and Barbuda. So I had a pretty good mix in terms of the government side of it and the private sector side of it, and that allowed me to come into government with that kind of experience.
In 1998 I did a degree through the University of the West Indies. I got the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in business management. I started a masters but I stopped when I got actually into government. So my aim is after I leave politics, hopefully in another five or six years, I will be able to go back and finish that and get involved in a number of other personal pursuits.
So I think that when you look at the diverse experiences that I’ve had, those things prepared me for the portfolio that I now have. A number of the players that I interact with, in terms of tourism, I would have met them before, while in the private sector aspect of my life.
Covid-19 impacted businesses and governments worldwide, hitting the tourism sector especially hard. In Antigua & Barbuda, several major infrastructure plans for tourism were in the pipeline which had to come to an abrupt halt. Can you walk us through the impact that the pandemic had on these projects and how you recalibrated your priorities? How did you navigate this unprecedented time?
We realized that we had to work to mitigate against the risk. We did a pretty good job with that. We trained probably about 6000 of our hotel employees or redcaps. For a small island like Antigua, that’s about everyone that’s involved. We trained and certified our two operators. We certified all our Airbnb or the Mom & Pop rooms that would normally rent. Everybody had to be certified. All our resorts were certified. Certified means that you would have all of the necessary things in there: the hand washing stations, in terms of Airbnb, if you were to rent a room you couldn’t get certified unless the room was on its own and it had its own toilet facilities, the person would not have to share anything with the people in the same environment or the same household. So when you get to the airport, you land and you say you’re staying at a particular location, the list is there, and if it’s not on the list, you have to rebook and stay somewhere else. Once initially we started, there was a little bit of reluctance, but now we have certified probably about 600 of those Airbnb facilities, which means we have added officially about 900 rooms to our stock, and these rooms are all inspected and certified. Along with all the resorts that are open, they’re all inspected, they’re all certified, the protocols in place, the staff trained, they all have doctors on call, they all have, depending on the size, a nurse on duty.
All of these things were done and put in place before our first flight touched down on the 4th of June. We also were able to open with one flight a week, which means that we reopened very small, just as we’re doing now with our cruise industry. And what we would do is: the flight landed, the next day, we had about a week to sit down and go over everything and see where we saw deficiencies to improve upon. I think we did a tremendous job. To date we have not had evidence of any spread from a guest or a visitor, staying at a certified and approved location, spreading to an Antiguan or local employee. From that standpoint, I think we’ve done a tremendous job in terms of preparing for further opening.
The country has made significant efforts in the sustainable development of its tourism sector. Antigua & Barbuda was recognized as an “Emerging Sustainable Destination for 2021” by Lonely Planet; in addition, it has been applauded for its Green Tourism Initiative, including its Green Fins Program. Can you tell us how you ensure responsible stewardship of the environment in the development of your tourism sector?
The prime ministers always had a vision that we need to look to ensure that, even though the differences that we make or the inputs that we have in terms of making our country less polluting, greener in terms of climate change, even though we will not really make a significant difference because we are tiny and what we do is insignificant in terms of pollutants, the idea is for us to lead the charge and be the poster boys and say to people: look if we can do it, you can do it; because, at the end of the day, although we are not a significant polluter, we are on the front line of climate change. We stand to lose our beaches, we stand to lose our reefs, we stand to lose our economy, we stand to lose the whole infrastructure with hurricanes that have come in more violent because of climate change and warm oceans. We stand to be affected in terms of droughts, +90% of our water now is through reverse osmosis as a result of drought. We stand to lose again from other climate change problems: if the reefs go, our fishing industry is affected.
To that end, we are aiming for Barbuda, which is an island next to Antigua, within the next five years, to be 100% zero fossil-fuel emissions—green energy totally—with electric vehicles. To be the first island in the region 100% non-fossil-fuel and non-carbon energy polluting. In addition to that, in Antigua we have an ongoing thing whereby we are slowly moving away from fossil-fuel energy to renewables. That is something that the Department of the Environment is committed to. In addition to that, we have now signed on. We are working with several partners to replant reefs around Antigua and Barbuda; that reef replanting is very important to us. We are also working to mark all the reefs around Antigua. Antigua is one of, if not the, sailing meccas of the Caribbean. And a lot of times the yachts that come in, drop anchor innocently, not realizing where the reef is. That anchor drags and damages the reef, or breaks part of the reef, and it takes so long to build back.
In addition to that, we have put seasons in place for our lobster, our conch and so on, to ensure they can rejuvenate. We’re very concerned about the environment. We have a huge-tree planting exercise now going on with the Ministry of Agriculture; we have lost a number of trees over the past decades, due to the advent of storms coming through the Caribbean, but we have committed to replant in the coconut palms, in particular, and a number of other trees. This is something that we initiated even from the school at a primary level. So we are very much committed to ensuring that Antigua and Barbuda is on the forefront of preventing climate change or leading the way to show the importance that, if we can do it, you can do it.
Major news was announced recently as Crystal Symphony will be the first ship to ever homeport in Antigua & Barbuda. You also recently came back from the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association’s summit in Miami, as the cruise industry starts to pick back up worldwide. What is your strategic vision for this crucial subsector which contributes so greatly to tourism in the country?
To be honest, during the downtime we had in terms of this cruise sector not operating, we didn’t just leave it alone. What we did is we sat down and came up with ways about how we could: one, improve, two, add safety protocols, and three, involve more of our people to get something out of the industry. For example, we have added new tour sites, because we found that what was happening is that you had a number of people coming in and they’re all targeted in three or four sites. What we set out to do is to expand out the number of sites, so the pressure will not be there in terms of human involvement going through these locations.
In addition to that, we looked to see how we could improve, again, to mitigate against visitors moving through the various parks and tours. We trained our two operators how to both keep safe and also how to work to protect the environment. The government has an initiative, for example, where we’re buying back all the plastic bottles. You would have known also that we banned plastics from Antigua and Barbuda. We are the first in the region to do that. So we sat down and said: we need to ensure that we don’t over stress our product, over stress our tours, over stress the facilities that our tourists visit. For example, even now, if somebody wants to do a tour on a particular island, the Environment Department has to get involved to ensure that if they go on the island, it is not very intrusive, they don’t affect the bird life, they don’t affect the other wildlife and, if there’s anything to promote, what is it, rather than just bulldoze it down as we would have done in the past. So we’re very conscious of what is happening. Our tour operators will understand that even if we get less people, if we can improve on the facility we can charge more, so we’re not getting less and we’re not stressing the environments that they would be visiting.
Tourism represents an important chunk of Antigua & Barbuda’s economy, accounting for an estimated 60% of GDP and 40% of total investment. What other promising opportunities exist for international trade and investment? What opportunities are available for potential in international investors in the United States?
Tourism is the main industry, and most of the investment relates around tourism. We’re seeing also the possibility now of linkages between the agricultural sector and the cruise industry and the tourism industry. So, whereas before 100% of everything was imported in, we now are seeing if we can create a niche to supply, for example, the cruise industry with water, with fresh vegetables and so on. And what we’re doing is positioning ourselves where you can be assured that the vegetables we produce, for example, will be done in a particular way where we don’t use chemicals and banned fertilizer; vegetables that are grown would not in any way be tampered with to see that the yield is improved. Everything you get here is original and that is how we’re selling it. So even though economies of scale would not allow us to sell at a competitive price, we are marketing what we have as a better product, a healthier product.
In terms of the citizenship by investment, that is another area that we are pushing and that has been quite good for us, because we have a number of international citizens that would come to Antigua. Part of the agreement is that they have to spend at least a weekend in Antigua. Having come to Antigua, a lot of them want to either build their home here or want to come back every year on vacation. So that in and of itself is also helping us, in a very important way, to attract more people to Antigua. In addition to that, the government is looking at the cannabis industry. We went to Parliament and passed legislation to allow for us to look at medical cannabis, to allow us to look at stem cell applications. So health tourism is important to us. Cultural tourism: exportable music, our dance, our culture. In addition to that, sports tourism. These are all ways we are looking to expand and market our product worldwide.
What is your final message to the readers of the Miami Herald?
We’re just a few hours away from Miami, and about four hours from New York. We’ve seen now flights opening up, from all parts of the world, coming into Antigua & Barbuda. So if you’re located in Antigua & Barbuda, you can very well move anywhere. The government is spending a lot of money in infrastructure related to the whole aspect of digitalizing the economy, digitalizing our schools and education. This means that the money is going into infrastructure for fast internet. These are things that will allow you, for example, to set up office in Antigua and operate.
In addition to that, Antigua has a fantastic climate. We have very low crime. Our infrastructure is being built out. Our people are the most hospitable in the world, arguably. And so Antigua would be a great destination, not just to come and visit, but actually to come and set up your headquarters to operate from. And with those things, which are safety and beautiful environment, you can step from your room right into the sea, have a wonderful swim, come back out, be on your laptop and get your business done and go back into the water again. All in all, Antigua is ideal. We are positioned in a great place in terms of where you want to connect to, via air or, for that matter, if you need to get on the internet, as I said we’re ramping up our speed, so we will be equivalent of just about any first-world country in terms of doing business.