ST JOHN’S, Antigua – Sandals Resorts International has slammed Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne for what it has described as “vicious, sustained and defamatory attacks” directed at the company.
Browne’s latest salvo came during current affairs programme Nationwide at Five Radio Network in Jamaica last Wednesday, where he again claimed that the hotel company, which operates Sandals Grande Antigua, sought to avoid its tax obligations and has acted inimical to the interests of the people of the twin-island nation.
“Nothing could be further from the truth, but the Prime Minister has demonstrated time and again that he has no interest in the truth,” the company said in a statement.
Adding that Sandals Grande is the flagship hotel of Antigua and Barbuda, Sandals insisted that over the past 25 years it has and continues to be the most significant contributor to the economy – EC$93 million (US$34.4 million) in 2016 -, the leading earner of foreign exchange and the highest private sector employer.
“Communities throughout Antigua and Barbuda benefit from the programmes of the Sandals Foundation, and only recently, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma,
Chairman Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart personally donated EC$150,000 (US$55,555) to relief efforts in Barbuda – ironically, even that was ungraciously lambasted by Prime Minister Browne as “insufficient.”
But that has been his attitude since 2016, when Prime Minister Browne and his administration, in clear breach of a proper and legally binding agreement, abolished the concessions granted under the previous government and signed by Finance Minister Errol Cort.”
Sandals insisted that in March 2000, under then Prime Minister Lester Bird, Sandals signed a Memorandum of Understanding which granted the company relief from the hotel tax and guest levy in exchange for constructing 100 new rooms.
“Not only did Sandals keep its word to the people of Antigua and Barbuda, we exceeded our obligations by almost doubling the number of rooms and suites to 180 at significant additional investment. This included adding tremendous facilities such as a brand new conference centre and restaurants to the resort.
In doing so we also increased employment by the addition of 120 per cent more staff members who enjoy some of the highest compensation packages in the Caribbean,” it said.
“After the hotel tax and guest levy was replaced by the Antigua and Barbuda Sales Tax (ABST), the then government, in 2009, with the sole purpose of ensuring that Sandals as the most significant investor on the island was not to be prejudiced by the introduction of the ABST, granted Sandals compensatory relief from a portion of the ABST in order to maintain the value of the original concession benefits.
“Since then Sandals has continued to fullfil its tax obligations in a timely manner and as a responsible stakeholder in Antigua and Barbuda. Our auditors have been top tier international companies such as PriceWaterhouse and most recently Grant Thornton, as well as the government agencies themselves, and there has never – we repeat, never – been any issue regarding Sandals’ compliance with its tax obligations including that of ABST.”
Sandals charged that while Prime Minister Browne was well aware of that, he seemed intent on “maintaining his ill-conceived campaign of defamation against Sandals and its chairman, both inside and outside of Parliament”.
“He either does not comprehend, or is intentionally and maliciously misleading the public regarding the computation of the ABST, claiming that his government has written off EC$100 million. The issue of a write-off does not exist.
“The fact is that ABST has always been included within the all-inclusive package as a component thereof. There is no question of Sandals ever withholding any taxes legally due and payable, and therefore there is nothing for the government to write off.
“The tax has been computed exactly as it was written in the concession agreement granted to Sandals in order to achieve the level of development that you can see there today on Dickenson Bay,” the statement said.
Sandals suggested that with the challenges facing the Caribbean following the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria in September, the Prime Minister should spend his time in a more constructive manner, “in reaching out to the marketplace…working alongside, rather than against us, to help promote the region and build Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism product”