We catch up with Ellison ‘Tommy’ Thompson, CEO of the St. Kitts Tourism Authority, for some expert insight into this enticing island destination.
Q&A WITH ELLISON ‘TOMMY’ THOMPSON, CEO, ST. KITTS TOURISM AUTHORITY
Firstly, could you provide us with a brief introduction to the tourist board?
Ellison ‘Tommy’ Thompson (TT): The St. Kitts Tourism Authority was founded in 2007, and our objective is to put St. Kitts on the map as a holiday destination for the wider market. We also have the responsibility of onshore quality assurance, working with everyone from our stakeholders to taxi drivers, and auto vendors, to ensure that they’re complying with the legislation that governs the tourism authority. We cooperate with the Ministry of Tourism in terms of new product initiatives, alongside working with cruise lines and airlines to ensure that we are maintaining adequate visitor and passenger levels to St. Kitts.
We want to look at how we can increase the number of arrivals and the economic benefit of tourism on St. Kitts. Ever since the historic shift from the sugar industry into tourism, this has become our major source of employment and the greatest avenue for foreign exchange into St. Kitts. Our vision is to ensure that the wealth of tourism continues to expand throughout the island.
What kind of traveller does St. Kitts appeal to most?
(TT): We appeal to the traveller who is looking for something new to experience – someone who is looking to get a richer experience beyond just a beach holiday. The tagline of our new campaign ‘Venture Deeper’ hints at the kind of adventure activities that travellers can take part in, but we also appeal to romantic holidays and family vacations. St. Kitts is known for its diving, and just this year, we were awarded the title of the Caribbean’s leading dive destination.
Whichever kind of traveller you are, we are a destination where you can join in with what the locals are doing through a seamless relationship. Coming here, people feel very welcomed and like they are at home. It is a feeling that will make you want to come back.
What differentiates St. Kitts from other Caribbean island destinations?
(TT): I think the greatest thing about St. Kitts is the Kittitian people themselves – I cannot stress how warm and welcoming they are. There are not many destinations in the world where you feel as comfortable as a tourist in local spots as you do in St. Kitts.
Aside from that, St. Kitts stands out for the physical beauty of the island, with its lush rainforests, mountains and beaches – it’s simply a stunningly beautiful place. One of our most popular activities, especially for kids, is the opportunity for tourists to explore the rainforest with a certified guide to learn all about the flora and fauna of the forest and its medicinal benefits. We recently won an award as a leading Caribbean hiking destination and recommend the opportunity to climb Mount Liamuiga at just over 3,000 feet.
Finally, it is our culinary experiences – whether it’s at our beach bars, fine-dining restaurants, and everything in between. This is where the rum industry first began, and we have started a programme, Kittitian RumMaster, where you can learn all about the theoretical and practical history of rum making in St. Kitts, culminating with the practical experience of our leading rum producers on the island. Jack Widdowson from the Wingfield Estate provides the theory, while Roger Brisbane from Hibiscus Spirits introduces guests to the practical side, where you can create your own brew before receiving your certificate at the end of the course.
How does St. Kitts incorporate sustainable travel experiences?
(TT): We see this as a major platform that must be incorporated in our tourism. As such, we have a Sustainable Tourism Council between the Tourism Authority, the Ministry of Tourism and the environmental agencies where we look at several initiatives. One of the most important ones is ‘Plastic-Free’, where we are educating the general public on how to minimise the use of plastic on the island.
I would also like to highlight the work of a new resort, Sunset Reef, where they are employing geothermal and solar technology to heat and power the hotel.
I think one of the most important things that we must look at when we talk about sustainability is how we sustain the culture of St. Kitts, not just the environment. This extends to how we sustain our people, and thereby protect our culture and preserve our history. In order to conserve the sustainability of our people, we need to look at our human resources, working with colleges, culinary schools and other institutions to ensure that we’re getting the manpower that is going to take our tourism industry even further. St. Kitts is relatively new to tourism, since it has only really developed here in the last 20 years, so there is still plenty of room in terms of opportunities for future development.
Looking ahead, what are the tourism board’s key priorities for the coming year?
(TT): We were quite late coming out of COVID-19 in terms of relaxing our protocols for entry, so we are still playing catch up. In August, we elected our new Minister of Tourism – the first female in the role – and she eliminated the need for vaccination and testing for people coming here for vacation. Visitors only need to fill out a mandatory immigration form online before arrival.
As we move forward, we’re looking at how to keep cruise visits stable in terms of the number of cruise calls that come into the destination, and how we increase our stopover business which is a matter of working with the airlines to extend seasonal service.
In September, we launched our new marketing campaign ‘Venture Deeper’, focusing on three different content pieces – our history, our culinary scene, and our romance. Each piece tells a different story about the destination, and this has already gained a lot of traction in the marketplace.
In the US, we are developing our key feeder market with non-stop flights and greater connectivity from New York, which is being supplemented with our PR activities. We’ve had a number of influencers, journalists and media come and visit from the US, Canada and the UK, who we are hoping will become great ambassadors for the island.
Finally, we have a major event coming up in June with the St. Kitts Music Festival which will be a huge draw for both international and regional guests. We feel like we’ve got the wind at our back now and we’re elevating the profile of St. Kitts, not only in the US market but also in Canada and the UK.