My Fellow citizens and residents of the Virgin Islands,
I come before you today at the mid-way point of this Government’s term.
I want to take this moment to update you on the progress we have achieved toward fulfilling the promises and commitments we made when you entrusted us to lead.
And more broadly, I want to use this occasion to share my thoughts about the direction our Territory is heading and where we must go from here to ensure the proud and prosperous future we deserve.
As you all know, I spent most of my life serving the public as a physician. Caring for people was, I believed, my life calling and it was a great joy to me.
But just over twenty years ago, I made the decision to make medicine a secondary focus in my life.
Together with my colleagues, we entered the world of politics and founded the National Democratic Party.
We did so because we shared one central conviction: that the highest duty of government in the BVI is to use the people’s resources wisely and strategically; to invest in the future; and to build a strong foundation for prosperity that will benefit our children and their children and countless generations of BVIslanders to come.
In adopting that creed, we committed ourselves to making hard choices.
We pledged not to use the people’s money to simply create hand-outs for those with the right connections.
We pledged not to spend recklessly, without hope for future returns.
We pledged not to waste your tax dollars, but rather to put them to work for your benefit.
And we have worked hard to fulfill that commitment in every budget, in every piece of legislation, in every expenditure, every single day.
That is why this Government has invested more than any Government in BVI history toward the development of our Territory.
We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve our tourism industry, to promote and protect our financial services sector, to build up our local businesses, to improve our health care, our schools, our roads, our water and sewerage systems, our electricity, and our air and sea ports; we have spent money on getting direct air access to and from this Territory; we have built clinics and community centres; we have hired teachers and provided necessary resources for our police force; we have marketed our Territory to the world and we have made sure that the benefits are enjoyed first and foremost by our people here at home.
We have made investments with care and diligence. In all cases, we have sought to spend your taxpayer dollars with local businesses and local people. Where necessary, we have partnered with companies and organizations from abroad – but only after we have made certain that the benefits of doing so would be felt by our people.
We know that we have not always been perfect in our efforts. Not every dollar invested has realized two dollars in return. As is the case in all human endeavors, mistakes have been made.
In particular, we have not done enough to communicate at all times with the people of the Territory about our efforts – and that is something we will fix with more regular updates and communications.
But we have never wavered from following our North Star. We have never stopped believing that it is our job to invest today, so that our children and grandchildren will enjoy a proud and prosperous tomorrow.
And we are confident that these efforts are paying off for you, the people of the BVI.
We see the results in the strong state of our Government’s finances.
This year, the BVI will achieve an important milestone by fulfilling our commitments under the Protocols for effective management of our finances which we entered into with the UK in 2012.
Under that agreement, we committed that our Reserve Fund would be equal to 25% of our recurrent expenditures and this year we will hit that mark with over $60M in our Reserve Fund, there to meet the needs of our people on the proverbial Rainy Day.
We have achieved that goal even in the face of a difficult 2016 when our Government revenues took a hit due to the global attack on our financial services industry - a topic I will return to momentarily.
Yet we weathered that storm and our future outlook is bright. Despite what some have falsely claimed, Government is not broke – Government’s finances are as sound as any in the world.
And part of that sound approach to public finance means effective borrowing to support critical capital investments.
Today, our public debt stands at 19 % of our GDP.
By comparison, in the U.S. public debt is about 103% of GDP; while in the UK, public debt is about 90% of GDP.
While we would be wrong to compare our small economy to those global powers, the fact is that by any reasonable measure, our debt is manageable and in keeping with best practices.
And how are we putting those expenditures to work? By seeking to uphold our promises to you and, in doing so, to ensure that the blessings we enjoy are there for generations yet to come.
At the highest level, I am pleased to report that thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the people of the BVI, our economy is strong and growing.
In 2015, we achieved a historical milestone when our Territory’s GDP crossed the threshold to become a $1 billion economy.
In 2017, we are projecting continued growth of over 3 percent.
What those numbers mean in real terms is simple: a growing economy means families have a bit more money to spend on themselves and their children. It means businesses have a bit more confidence to hire more workers and purchase new equipment. And it means Government has more resources to invest in our future.
We in Government do so based on three simple priorities: 1.) Build upon the twin pillars of tourism and financial services; 2.) Promote business development and investment. 3.) Meet the essential needs of every BVIslander by providing the best possible healthcare, education, public safety and other basic services.
Allow me to address these three areas in order, starting with tourism.
For the past several years, this Government has invested significant sums to make the BVI the premier destination in the region and one of the great destinations in the world.
I am pleased to report that these investments are paying off.
In 2016 record numbers were set in all sectors—cruise, overnight and day trippers—as the Territory welcomed over 1.12M visitors, representing a 22% increase in tourism arrivals over 2015.
BVI’s strong growth in overnight arrivals placed the territory ahead of neighbours, including Antigua, Saint Lucia and St. Kitts.
We are also optimistic about 2017 with the reopening of Little Dix Bay which is on track to open at the end of December.
I am also pleased with the continued growth of development at Oil Nut Bay on Virgin Gorda, the development on Mosquito Island, and the recent opening of Hendo's on Jost Van Dyke among other places. Our sister islands are truly delivering for tourism.
And we are looking ahead with confidence because we are acting with purpose – nowhere more so than in our determination to improve air service to the BVI.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me be clear: It is intolerable that visitors flying to the BVI from the United States must make several changes and oft times travel for two days to get here.
The lack of affordable, convenient air service to our Territory puts us at a significant competitive disadvantage against other destinations with regular jet service, including direct flights from the U.S.
We lose thousands of visitors, tens of millions of dollars, hundreds of good jobs every single year that this situation continues.
So we absolutely must act.
There is no easy solution to this problem. If we could wave a wand and make improved air service happen, we would surely do so.
But that is not an option. We must explore every possibility and that is what we are doing, including our ongoing effort to begin air service through BVI Airways.
This ambitious concept is a challenging one to be sure. There is a reason our competitors in the region do not operate air services under their own national name. There is no Air Barbados, or Air Turks and Caicos. But those destinations have the good fortune right now of having regular, direct air service from the U.S. and so they are relieved of that burden.
We are not so fortunate and so we must roll up our sleeves and find an answer that works
We take this challenge on because we know that growing our tourism industry and our financial services industry ultimately pays off in the most important way possible: creating the revenues we need to improve the lives of the people of the BVI.
But let me be clear – as we work toward improved air access, we are not sitting on our hands – we are actively working to make our tourism product more exciting, our service world-class, and we are aggressively marketing ourselves to tourists around the world.
I am pleased to report progress on all these fronts.
To make our tourism product more attractive, we have invested in upgrades throughout the entire Territory. These improvements are there for the benefit of our visitors – but they are equally about enhancing the everyday quality of life for every BVIslander and resident who gets to enjoy these amenities at all times.
Some of the highlights of our most recent investments include:
In Anegada, where we installed an irrigation system at the S. Vanessa Faulkner Botanical Garden and rehabilitated the Fisherman’s Wharf.
In Jost Van Dyke, we have completed the design of Jost Van Dyke birding panels to attract bird-lovers to the island.
On Virgin Gorda, we have completed the second of two beach bohio projects at Savannah Bay and are now working towards installing some at Pond Bay.
On Tortola we have completed Phase I of Her Majesty’s Prison and it is now opened and welcoming visitors. Combining this with the Sugar Works Museum and the Old Government House Museum gives our visitors a historical experience in Road Town.
In April, the BVI Art Reef was launched with the sinking of the Kodiak Queen, creating a significant addition to the Territory’s dive sites - this one just off Virgin Gorda.
And, of course, this past year we completed work on the Pier Park that makes the Day Trip experience to the BVI for cruise ship passengers the best in the entire region.
We should all take great pride in these accomplishments and the benefits they have delivered for our people.
We are also constantly looking for new sources of investment in our tourism product.
Just recently, our government signed an agreement with the ICA group to redevelop Prospect Reef; there continues to be active interest in the reopening Biras Creek; and one of the world’s leading investment companies recently acquired The Moorings.
These investments confirm that the BVI tourism industry is vibrant and will remain so as long as we remain focused on it.
On the service front, we continue to invest heavily in training, collaborating with Disney in a partnership which has attracted over 1,000 participants in the Territory, 71 of which are master trainers.
And through the BVI Tourist Board we are marketing our tourism offering in new ways.
For example, this year we sponsored the Miami Open Tennis Tournament putting our message in front of 304,000 ticket holders and a global television audience of 77.8 million viewers.
This same innovative and aggressive approach to developing our local industry is guiding us in our approach to financial services.
It is no secret that our financial services industry has faced unfair and unfounded attacks over the past year.
But rest assured, we are fighting back hard and we are winning the day.
In that regard, I want to call the public’s attention to a report just released by the global consultancy Capital Economics, which looked at our financial services industry in-depth.
The results of their report are remarkable:
Our international business and finance centre drives roughly one-and-a-half trillion dollars in cross border investment flows, supports two million jobs around the world, and generates fifteen billion dollars in revenues for governments outside the BVI.
Allow me to put these numbers into very concrete terms.
Thanks to the work our people here in the BVI do each day, hospitals get built in Africa; highways get built across Asia; factories open in Germany and the UK; oil wells get developed in Russia; new scientific research investments get made in Brazil and all around the world schools, police forces and health care centers operate with tax dollars created by BVI-based companies.
Literally every part of our planet feels the benefit of our industry because at its heart, our financial services industry is about creating a space where capital can be organized and put to productive use efficiently, safely and under the umbrella of a reputable regulatory structure.
Every single BVIslander should be immensely proud of the financial industry we have built here. And none of us should ever take it for granted.
Over two-thousand BVIslanders – one out of every ten members of our community – is directly employed by the industry. And another three thousand jobs are the direct result of the industry’s activities.
Given the enormous stakes for our Territory, we are committed to doing all in our power to promote and strengthen this pillar of our prosperity.
That starts with our efforts to combat the global campaign of disinformation that has been waged against our Territory and against the entire global financial system.
The report I referenced a moment ago is part of that effort. Thanks to the hard work of BVI Finance, “Brand BVI” is being promoted and protected around the world.
The Capital Economics report has been circulated everywhere from New York, to London, to Hong Kong. It has been reported on the front pages of the Financial Times, in the Business Section of the London Times and elsewhere.
These efforts are crucial for our future and they are bearing fruit.
Since December, our Territory has added 4,000 new business registrations, bringing our total up to over 421,000 companies. While that uptick is relatively modest, it is a signal that investors around the world are refusing to be bullied away from doing productive business in the BVI and that is good news for us – and for the entire global economy.
And as we work to stabilize our industry we are playing offense, as well as defense.
That starts with our continued work to build our position in Asia.
Three and a half years since the launch of BVI House Asia in Hong Kong in September 2013, we can say categorically that the investment is paying off.
The Asia Pacific Region is now the BVI’s largest market, representing about 40 percent of the territory’s global financial services business and about 25 percent of Government revenues.
A recent industry report projects that for the next five years, the BVI will remain the top offshore jurisdiction worldwide - ‘an embedded brand’ and the go-to for most structuring conduits,” especially in China.
But we must be nimble to meet the needs of our Asian business partners, which makes BVI House Asia a critical institution.
For example, for the past few years in Hong Kong we experienced difficulties with opening bank accounts. BVI House Asia was on point to help facilitate an innovative and technology-driven banking solution: the Bank of Asia (BVI) Ltd which is expected to open for business later this year. I am especially grateful to its founder Mr Carson Wen of Hong Kong for not only his tireless efforts in getting the bank open but for all he does for the BVI.
And that brings me to the third pillar of this Government’s strategy: putting the public’s money to work delivering the best possible services to our communities.
That starts with the most essential of service: healthcare.
The Ministry of Health and Social Development led by Honourable Ronnie. Skelton has been working diligently to ensure that the health services available to our people are second to none.
The historic National Health Insurance System became fully operational on 1st January, 2016 and is providing health coverage for all registered beneficiaries from Anegada to Jost Van Dyke, regardless of age, health condition, social or economic status.
Thanks to this new level of coverage, the BVI Health Services Authority has recorded a significant increase in patient flows and that has created some “teething pains” for the system.
But we are committed to making it work and making the BVI among the nations where healthcare is a right, not a privilege.
The new Peebles Hospital continues to grow from strength to strength and now contains state-of-the-art medical imaging facilities and diagnostic services, a programme for minimally invasive and other specialty surgeries, a prostate cancer clinic, and a chemotherapy venous access programme.
We are also looking to generate additional revenue, which can be reinvested in services to the local community by marketing Medical Tourism.
We have taken an important step in that direction with an agreement reached with the Atlantic Clinic based in the United States.
We also continue to invest in community clinics. This past year, the number of patients accessing care at clinics increased by 46%, facilitated by extended operating hours at the Road Town and Rosalyn Penn Clinics; and the delivery of specialist services in most medical disciplines.
With a renewed focus on patient and community-centered care, refurbishment works have been undertaken at the Jost Van Dyke and North Sound Clinics, and the construction of the new Nurse Iris O’Neal Medical Centre, the first floor of which is on track for completion this year.
Renovations to the Anegada Community Clinic are complete and a new ambulance was purchased to improve the quality of healthcare services offered to residents.
A section of the Peebles Hospital Annex has been retrofitted to accommodate the purpose built Next Generation 911 Emergency Call Handling Center which will consolidate Territory-wide Emergency Response communications
Other significant achievements include the implementation of a multi-sector Non-Communicable Disease Prevention Strategy, including a Chronic Care programme aimed at reducing morbidity and mortality from chronic conditions.
And the rebranding of the Sandy Lane Centre to the Safe Haven Transitional Center to provide better social support and stable housing to persons experiencing chronic homelessness.
With a similar commitment to advancing the interests of our Territory, my Government remains firmly committed to protecting our environment, and managing it for the enjoyments of present and future generations.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour led by the Honourable Dr. Kedrick Pickering has been making significant strides.
We have partnered with the European Union Global Climate Change Alliance and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States in the implementation of the IsLand Resilience project.
Projects have been approved for the construction of the Cane Garden Bay Revetment wall and the Cane Garden Bay Sewage Treatment plant, both of which have been supported with over a half-millon Euros in financing from the EU.
We have commenced the East End/Fat Hogs Bay Harbour Development Project with the construction of the fisherman’s ramp and concrete bulk head.
And the development of Brandywine Bay Beach will provide an alternate swim area to alleviate pressures from other beaches.
Through all these investments, we are ensuring a future in which economic growth and environmental protection go hand-in-hand.
Yet as we celebrate these achievements, we must also acknowledge that a clean environment starts with each one of us.
One cannot travel through our Territory today without noticing evidence of littering and careless disposal of trash – including used refrigerators, mattresses and other household items.
Let me say to all my fellow BVIslanders – this must stop.
Our land, our air, our seas are God’s gift to us. When any one of us throws our garbage out in public we are betraying that blessing and giving offense to our neighbours and families. We are essentially saying that we don’t care about one another and we don’t value God’s blessings.
That is not tolerable behavior and it must stop.
I call on every citizen to their part. Not only do I ask that you police your own activity, but I ask you to have the courage to speak up when others fall short. Toward that end, I am proposing the creation of an anonymous tipline where residents can report any incident they witness of improper dumping in public spaces. The authorities can use these tips to investigate incidents and, when appropriate, level fines against the offenders. Let there be no mistake – this is an issue we take with the utmost seriousness. It shall not continue.
As we work to clean up our Territory, we also intend to continue to invest in the upkeep and beautification of our capital of Road Town.
This city remains the gateway to our Territory and the symbol of the BVI to the world. There is much we have to be proud of in Road Town, but the appearance of the city has not kept up with its cultural, economic and social vibrance.
That is why we are developing plans for further enhancements, and we will have more to report on this front in the coming months.
The Ministry of Education and Culture, led by Honourable Myron W. Walwyn has been steadfast on its path to achieving the 7 strategic priorities as set out in the Education Sector Plan.
As it seeks to improve leadership and management in the schools, the first cohort of Principals and senior teachers have been trained by the National College of Educational Leadership. The second cohort is on its way to completion.
We have been working to enhance the knowledge and skills of our educators to integrate the use of technology in the education process. Through an innovative public/private collaboration with Digicel and Flow we have added bandwidth in all our public schools and today all 328 students in Grade 5 across all our public primary schools now have access to laptop computers. Soon we will expand into Grade 6.
The addition of Grade 12 at the secondary level was implemented in the 2016 – 2017 academic year, with Grade 12 students who are on a faster track eligible to be dually enrolled at the HLSCC.
The Department of Youth Affairs and Sports was restructured and a new vision and mission, core principles and values were articulated to guide the work of the Department.
And we continue our efforts to build the Rehabilitation unit at Her Majesty’s Prison, Balsam Ghut. The education programme was fully established for the 2016/2017 school year and already, two inmates have been able to complete studies and gain their High School Diplomas.
In terms of infrastructure, The Ministry of Communications and Works led by the Hon. Mark Vanterpool continues to pursue its mission of bringing our system of roads, utilities and other essential services up to the highest standards in the world.
Highlights in this effort include The Burt Point Sewerage Facility, which was recently brought on line;
Roads have been paved and improved across the Territory, most notably in Sea Cow’s Bay, Chalwell, Meyers, Ridge Road and in Anegada;
Water purchase rates were renegotiated, resulting in a lowering of rates by 40 percent. As a result, customers will be able to purchase water from $12 for the first one-thousand gallons;
The BVI Electricity Corporation has completed its Phase Five development, adding an additional 24.3 MW of generating capacity; Power outages are now few and far between. We thank you for your patience as we sought to improve this essential service.
In addition, the BVI Electricity Corporation’s Ordinance Act of 1979 was amended to make provisions for the use of renewable energy sources and to enable customers to sell electricity back to the corporation, giving BVIslanders a way to both save money and improve the environment;
Finally, improvements were made in various Government facilities including a more efficient, cost-effective A/C system in the Central Administration Building and updated phone systems across Government offices.
As Government has invested in forward-looking healthcare, education and infrastructure systems, we are also zealously committed to the most essential of services: public safety.
Like many of you, I am deeply troubled by the persistence of violent crime in our Territory and I am resolute about doing something about it.
We in the BVI are a family. We are neighbours to each other. We are bound by common ties of blood, kinship and values.
It is intolerable and unacceptable that so many of our young people have bought into the lies sold to them by foreign companies promoting a lifestyle of drugs, violence, hatred and yes murder.
Let me speak clearly: we are all in a battle for the lives of our children and the safety of our community.
I give thanks to God that the BVI is still a very safe corner of the world. Our rates of violent crime remain much lower than much of our region or the broader world beyond.
Yet even these relatively low rates of crime are not acceptable to me, to my Government or to the God-fearing and law abiding people of this community.
That is why my Government is giving our full backing to the RVIPF. We have provided the police with all the financial support they need and we are demanding of them that they step up their efforts to respond to and solve open criminal cases.
I appreciate the efforts of those community minded persons who have called attention to this rise in crime through concerts and other events and reiterate my call upon the people of the Territory to work with the police toward the goal of solving crimes that have been committed.
We must be united in this effort. There is no Belonger and non-Belonger; no NDP or VIP; no resident or visitor when it comes to crime. On this front there are only two sides – us and them. On our side are all those who uphold the law. On their side are those who seek to corrupt our youth and spread violence among our people.
We all must decide on which side we stand and then act accordingly.
We must do so because it is right. We must do so because it is moral. We must do so because it is about our future.
Ladies and Gentlemen: let me conclude where I began.
The mission of this Government is to protect the future of this Territory – to ensure that our blessings are not squandered, but passed on to the next generation and beyond.
We are working hard to do so each day. In our financial services industry, in our tourism industry, in our economy and in our services – our eyes are always on the future, on the horizon.
But we cannot get there alone. We will only thrive if we stand together.
As is true in all democracies, we will have our differences and our debates. That is normal and good.
But in the end, we must recall that what unites us is far stronger than what divides us. We all love our children. We all love our country. If we put them first in our hearts and in our minds then we can find a path that leads us all forward.
I want to thank the people of the BVI for the support and trust you have invested in this Government. I want to thank my fellow colleagues in Government and in the Opposition for your patriotic commitment to public service. I want to thank all those in civil service who give their all on behalf of the community.
And, as always, we give our highest thanks and praise to God, without whom nothing in this world would be possible.
Together, let us continue to move our country forward toward the future we all deserve.
Thank you. And may God forever bless the BVI.