When the sugar industry in St. Kitts closed in 2005 after 350 years, the railway carriages used to transport the cane from the plantations to the factory in the island’s capital of Basseterre were transformed into a scenic railway.
Joining several other Caribbean countries that have transitioned to service-based economies that are largely tourism-centred, the colourful double-decker train takes passengers on a three-hour tour that makes a 30-mile circle around the 68-square mile island, which is the smallest sovereign state in the Americas.
Created through a collaboration between the Kittitian government and private enterprise, the “Sugar Train” – as it’s commonly known – is the centrepiece of the government’s drive to promote the island as a destination of choice for visitors.
“Where else could you go in the Caribbean and hop on a ‘choo-choo’ train ride that takes you through landscapes of what used to be the remains of great houses, old sugar plantations and sugar crops while intertwining with local people?” asked the island’s tourism authority chief executive officer, Racquel Brown, while on her first official visit to Toronto recently. “St. Kitts is the only Caribbean island that remains quintessential with that authentic experience that when you go there, it’s time for you to just decompress, relax and let go. We have evolved from an island based on sugar to become the only unique attraction in the Caribbean.”
To take advantage of its distinctiveness, Brown said St. Kitts will not be marketed as a destination for mass tourism.
“We understand that the visitor that’s coming to our island wants to have an experience like no other,” she said. “We could have gone that route and secured investment that speaks to that. But at the end of the day, there is so much of that sun, beach and sand experience in the Caribbean. We don’t want to have the template of what everyone else has become. We are in the business of offering unique experiences. Beach and sun are baseline for every Caribbean country. We are taking it to the next level.”
The new Park Hyatt hotel, Tom Fazio 18-hole golf course and Marina five-star developments on Christophe Harbour, which is a 2,500-acre resort development community on the island’s southern peninsula, promise to offer experiences that will differentiate St. Kitts from other Caribbean locations.
The first phase of the Park Hyatt, expected to be completed early next year, will boast 134 rooms and residential units, while the Marina will accommodate small crafts and mega yachts ranging from 85-300 feet.
While in Toronto, Brown met with Professional Golf Association of Canada executives to promote the Tom Fazio course to Canadians and Air Canada officials.
Air Canada’s third annual direct seasonal service from Toronto to St. Kitts starts on December 20 and ends in April.
“Sometime down the road, we are looking at getting year-round service from this city to St. Kitts,” said Brown, who acquired her first degree in environmental geology from Northeastern University. “We are also looking at approaching WestJet later this year. We are engaged in a smart marketing promotion, most of it digital which is less expensive and very strategic. You can pull and push at your own will and tweak and hold back. I think, for us, that’s the right thing to do.”
Jamaican-born Brown joined the St. Kitts Tourism Authority last January after spending nearly five years with the Cayman Islands tourism department as manager of tourism development service and acting deputy director of product development.
While marketing is commonly viewed as promoting and selling products and services, Brown said she does not fully fit into that mould.
“I am not a traditional marketer,” said the Florida International University Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate, who spent seven years as a consultant with the PA Consulting Group before heading to the Cayman Islands six years ago. “I am an anomaly but it works because products are what sell. Marketers sell the products but if you don’t understand that product, it’s not good for marketing. I am a firm, believer in investing in your product because it makes it easier to sell. For me, St. Kitts offers that prized opportunity because we have seen where mistakes have been made in several Caribbean countries.”’
Abdullah Skerritt, the St. Kitts Tourism Authority director of e-business operations, accompanied Brown to Toronto.