Q: The Antigua Labour Party, led by prime minister Gaston Browne, came into power in 2014 after a decade in opposition. What has been achieved in this time?
A: In 2014 we inherited a very lousy economy, with negative growth for three consecutive years, and so the single largest challenge for the government upon coming to office was rebuilding the economy. Our job was not made any easier with the banking issue that we inherited.
But very quickly we dealt with that because we understood that the basis for economic take-off would be a settlement of those issues and we were able to settle them satisfactorily. It came at a fair price to the taxpayers, but... corresponding to those actions, we [then] had a very solid platform for growth.
Housing was one of our major focuses as we came to office, [as we had made a promise to build] 500 homes in 500 days. But even that too had its challenges because having to fix the banking issue took away from the immediate focus of building 500 homes. But we kept our focus: the houses are still under construction. We have at least three major housing development projects on the way at the moment.
Our focus was not just about housing but we also looked at the issue of the tourism sector, which is the livelihood of the economy and so we have a number of hotel and tourism projects on the drawing board.
In our first two years of office we also focused very heavily on the Citizenship by Investment Programme. Ours has not been a simple ‘passport sale’, because we are averse to that. Ours is an investment portfolio, where a person can invest in real estate or business, and that has had quite a level of success.
All of our efforts are predicated and premised on education: building a stronger workforce, a more intelligent workforce and [increasing] the level of productivity. Our mantra is ‘building an economic powerhouse’, so you understand why education is so pivotal and important to this exercise.
Q: Where do you place yourselves in the Caribbean tourism equation? In which ‘niche’ do you see Antigua and Barbuda fitting in?
A: Ours is more of a higher end niche; we are not mass tourism. I think that our immediate competitor is Barbados, although it is a bigger economy, and also Saint Lucia, which, like us, has the Sandals resort brand and our economies are the same size.
There is another element of tourism that we are working on – heritage tourism – but that takes some time to evolve into something major because of the investment required. In my constituency, Saint Paul’s, there are [historical] fortifications – places like this as well as Nelson Dockyard and Shirley Heights would make for a good heritage tourism package. We started some work recently with the Spanish government, cleaning one of the fortifications called Monk's Hill. We have our eyes on heritage tourism, as we have our eyes on medical tourism.
For medical tourism, we had our first kidney transplant done here this year. We have a cancer treatment centre that is serving the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, which is also going to be expanding and is working on renal issues across the region. Cancer and renal failures are two areas of significant concern and interest to governments in the Caribbean.
We are hoping to expand the services into an industry of sorts. Those are part of not only the government’s commitment to our people but parts of the platform we are using to grow the economy.