A visitor to Martinique would think it impossible for the Caribbean island to have difficulty attracting tourists. But behind its appealing image of waterfalls and palm trees, Martinique and its tourism industry face serious challenges.

The year 1997 saw 500,000 tourists visit the island and many more pass by on cruise ships. Tourism numbers dipped between 1997 and 2003, only for the situation to improve, largely thanks to the new craze of eco-tourism. However, in 2008 Hurricane Dean devastated the island and tourism numbers dropped again. Then came the financial crisis and general strikes on the island, which left it with only 430,000 tourists in 2009, the lowest number in 13 years. 

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Deeper issues

However, the causes of Martinique’s failure to attract more tourists are much deeper than one hurricane, the credit crunch and a general strike. Politically situated in France but geographically in the Caribbean, its culture is delicately balanced between the two regions. While this adds character to the island, it also means that holidaymakers can always find somewhere else that is either more French or more Caribbean. And other Caribbean destinations are often far cheaper for visitors because of the strength of the euro and Martinique’s need to import goods from France.

As well as problems related to the financial climate, Martinique has also not fully adapted to the non-francophone world. Its official language is French and the locals speak French Creole, but any other language or dialect is relatively hard to come by. Until recently, flights would only go to and from France, unless they were coming from another Caribbean island.

Another issue is the tropical climate in Martinique. While extremely welcoming to tourists, the threat of adverse weather conditions and other natural hazards can discourage both investors and tourists from coming to the island. Infrastructure is also a problem. Despite Martinique's roads being impeccably built and maintained, they fail to accommodate any transport other than cars, motorbikes and the occasional bus.

Wider market

The need to adapt and accommodate a wider market has not gone unnoticed by the island’s inhabitants. New air services have been started between Martinique and North and South America; flights and accommodation are getting cheaper, while the standard of living remains high.

The most notable change under way at present in Martinique is undoubtedly the construction of the business centre of Pointe Simon, a massive development that will combine office space, a hotel and other facilities. Martin James, director-general of La Société de Promotion de la Pointe Simon et Ses Environs, says: “While the iconic 20-storey tower will impose itself as the new beacon for the capital city of Fort-de-France, the future international-class business hotel and conference centre is set to attract visitors from North America, Europe and beyond to the complex in line with the island’s strategic aim of internationalising its tourist trade.”

Already, international investors are starting to reconsider the previously overlooked island as a hub for potential projects, with Trinidadian companies Guardian Holdings, Starvert and RBTT all making investments in the new business centre. Douglas Camacho of Guardian Holdings says: “We saw this development as an opportunity to diversify our investment holdings by participating in an A-grade complex that is also transformational for the island of Martinique.”

The centre at Pointe Simon was designed to be protected from potential natural hazards. Mr James adds: “The design phase included the first wind study and largest test pile installation for a project in Martinique. This effort was vital to ensure the confidence of the business elite in the project. The centre will be a significant contribution to the growth of business and tourism on the island.”