Easing Martinique Access: One-On-One With Muriel Wiltord
These are literally high times for Martinique. The eastern Caribbean island’s tourism business is in the midst of a significant expansion triggered in large part by a 193 percent increase in airline service into the country during this year’s peak winter period.
Late last year Norwegian Air launched nonstop service to Martinique from New York, Boston, and Baltimore/Washington, D.C. American Airlines also expanded nonstop service from Miami to Fort-de-France in December.
The flights represent the first time Martinique has been directly accessible from the Northeast in more than 20 years, said Muriel Wiltord, director Americas for the Martinique Promotion Bureau. We spoke with Wiltord recently for her take on the country’s growing tourist arrivals.
TP: There is a perception of Martinique as a faraway, off-the-beaten-track Caribbean destination. How difficult is it to reach Martinique?
Muriel Wiltord: Martinique is today actually among the most easily accessible islands in the Eastern Caribbean for U.S. travelers. During the 2016 winter season the total inventory of available nonstop air seats from the U.S. mainland to Martinique is up nearly 200 percent with 13 nonstop flights operating weekly from major U.S. metro areas [including] New York, Boston, Baltimore/Washington, DC, and Miami.
TP: What attributes distinguish Martinique from other Caribbean destinations?
MW: Its beauty, rich heritage and vibrant lifestyle; the unique combination of cultures and traditions from France, Africa, the Far East, and the West Indies that have come together here to create something special.
TP: Travelers tend to think of Martinique as a “French” Caribbean nation. Is there evidence around the country of its ties to French culture? Also, what other cultures and historic places are available to visitors to the country?
MW: Martinique is a part of France much in the same way that Hawaii is part of the United States. Our flag is le Tricolour, our currency is the Euro, and French is the official language. The same fantastic French wines and champagnes, fashions and perfumes that you find in Paris, you can also find here.
At the same time, though, Martinique is distinctly West Indian. In addition to French, locals also speak Creole. The most traditional local dishes like Colombo and Calaloo mirror those of neighboring islands, and cultural customs and festivals like storytelling, Carnival, and the Yole Boat Race are very much alive in Martinique.
TP: As a Martinique native, what do you feel is the signature characteristic of your country? What are you most proud of with regards to your country’s history and its present-day reality?
MW: Its authenticity, the generosity of its people, and its French touch are all characteristic of Martinique. We keep alive the memory of our heritage and preserve our superb eco system, while also looking ahead to build a bright tomorrow for future generations.
TP: What do you consider the must-see attractions for visitors to Martinique who may have limited time there?
MW: The Slave Savannah and La Pagerie Museum — both in Trois-Ilets — are musts. The Savannah is an authentic re-creation of the type of village runaway slaves created in the rugged highlands, while La Pagerie is the childhood home of Empress Josephine, Napoleon's wife who was born and raised in Martinique.
There's lots more history to discover in Fort-de-France, where visitors can enjoy a walking tour including stops at Fort Saint Louis, the Schoelcher Library, the Saint Louis Cathedral, and more.
TP: For folks with a little more time, are there other attractions they should target?
MW: Martinique's many rhum [the sugar cane distilled spirit distinct from molasses-based rum] distilleries also detail the island's rich history and legendary rhum-making traditions. Rhum Clement, Depaz, Rhum Saint-James, La Mauny, Rhum Neisson, and Rhum JM, in particular, all offer fantastic tours and rhum-tasting opportunities, so you'll want to take more time to fully enjoy the experience. The Anse Cafard Slave Memorial, with its colossal statues facing the majestic Diamond Rock, is a moving testament to the memory of slavery not-to-be-missed.
TP: Martinique’s cruise ship passenger totals have risen sharply in the past few years. To what do you attribute this increase and do you expect the numbers to continue to grow?
MW: As a tourism group, we made a concerted effort to grow our cruise sector back in 2010, working more closely with influential trade groups like the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) and increasing our presence at key cruise industry events like Cruise Shipping Miami. At the same time, capital improvement programs aimed at revitalizing the downtown Fort-de-France waterfront were enacted, enhancing the visitor experience for cruise passengers.
As well, the two main cruise ports in Fort-de-France, Tourelles and Pointe Simon, were upgraded and expanded to accommodate the world's largest cruise ships, including Royal Caribbean's Oasis- and Quantum-class ships. It's taken a concerted effort on the part of the public and private sector that's come at an ideal time as increasing numbers of cruise enthusiasts insist on new and more exotic ports of call.
TP: What should travelers know about Martinique that may be a secret or a surprise?
MW: The two biggest things are that Martinique is more accessible and more affordable than any time in the past 20 years. It is more accessible thanks to all the new nonstop flights aboard Norwegian Air and American and more affordable thanks to the continued strength of the U.S. dollar versus the euro.
Martinique is a destination that encourages discovery and exploration, like when you visit the South of France or Italy. You hit the road and drive from quaint fishing villages to exquisite gardens and historic mansions. The roads are well marked and in excellent condition. Our American guest just love it and for them, we are rolling out the red carpet like never before in 2016.
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