Of fairy tale endings and the Royal Antiguan

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On the face of it, the news that the Grand Royal Antiguan has been sold is very welcome news. The hotel, once a jewel in the tourism crown, has long become dull and outdated. Some would even refer to the property as dilapidated, to a certain extent.
The property, which lies on one of Antigua’s most beautiful beaches was sold in 2004 to Trinidad & Tobago’s Issa Nicholas. He was described, at the time, as the sole investor and Chairman of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Trinidad and he made big promises; like big-island people are wont to do. It was a significant deal at the time and was labelled a “major boost to the tourism industry” by many. In a ceremony attended by the then Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer and former Attorney General Justin Simon, Nicholas handed over an $18 million cheque to Dr Errol Cort. It was said to be the cash component of an overall $30 million dollar arrangement.
The United Progressive Party (UPP) referred to it as the first of what they expected to be many large tourism investments and projects and boasted that after extensive renovations, the Royal Antiguan Resort would be returned to its former glory and become the envy of the Caribbean. The push was to make the facility into “THE” conference centre of the Caribbean with seating capacity for up to 1,000 people. On the face of it, that plan seemed good – at the time.
Unfortunately for the nation, in the time since it was sold in 2004, there has been little investment and that has led to further deterioration of the property. How bad? Well, in a March 2015 one-star review on tripadvisor.com entitled “Flea Circus”, a reviewer by the name of Andrew F had this to say: “I am now thinking that if and when I want to start up my flea circus with the help of some Mosquitos and/or bed bugs this a great place to sit on my own … and practice with my itchy friends. Do not ever visit this sad old place by choice.”  More up-to-date reviews are even more critical, with titles like “Terrible place to stay. Don’t even think of it”, ”Disgrace” and “Worst hotel I have stayed in!” In fact, reading through the many reviews on the website provides a sad but somewhat entertaining bit of reading.
Since the Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) took office, they have been at loggerheads with Mr Nicholas. The government went so far as to threaten the owner with compulsory acquisition of the property if he did not invest in the hotel as promised and improve the facility. The response, as far as we understood, was more promises. In October 2014, we were informed that the government’s plans to have the Sunwing group purchase the property were abandoned because Mr Nicholas refused to agree. Instead, he upped the ante and promised a $20 million investment, according to the Chief of Staff, Lionel “Max” Hurst, who said, “The owner of the Royal Antiguan hotel came in to see the Honourable Gaston Browne last week. I was privy to that meeting, and he has promised to invest US $20 million into making the existing hotel better than it is … he has also employed a management firm which will turn the existing hotel into a busy place, he has promised us.”
At the same time, the government let it be known that it intended to allow another hotel to be built on Crown land nearby to the Royal Antiguan. This was likely good strategy because it would put Mr Nicholas in a tough spot. If he did not invest, then he would be sitting adjacent to a brand new hotel which would only highlight the inadequacies of his hotel. That left few options: spend $20 million and compete, do nothing and see his current investment dwindle, be compulsorily acquired, or just sell.
In the end, he chose to sell. Sure, he made a few dollars by holding on to a property and doing not much, and we are not happy that the government decided to waive all transfer fees, etc, but the workers will get paid their severance and hopefully the Royal Antiguan will once again become a jewel in our tourism crown, employ hundreds of people and contribute to the Treasury.
We are extremely glad that the government never had to go down the road of compulsory acquisition because that would have likely been a disaster. Let’s face it, our track record in that regard is not good. So congratulations, people of Antigua & Barbuda (and the government), we have turned to the next chapter in the Royal Antiguan story and hopefully this one has a happier ending.

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