Many events in St. Martin's history have shaped the island's economic status, including the rise and fall of the sugarcane industry, the abolition of slavery, and the introduction of the tourism industry. The economies of both the French and Dutch sides of St. Martin have shifted focus from the cultivation of sugar to the success of tourism. Thousands of tourists now visit this tiny, dual nation island each year.
St. Martin followed in the footsteps of the majority of Caribbean islands and began to develop sugarcane plantations around 1650. Originally, there were about 35 to 37 plantations on both the Dutch and French sides of the island. With so many sugarcane plantations, the colonists needed to find a cheap source of labor to work the land. The settlers tried to convince workers from Europe to come and work on the island by offering them land in exchange for 36 months of unpaid labor, but very few Europeans were persuaded to do so. The colonists on St. Martin had to find another solution to their labor problems, and so turned to the African slave trade.
Hundreds of African slaves were brought to St. Martin to work on the sugarcane plantations. The slave workers transformed the arid countryside into a land green with sugarcane. Soon the number of slaves on the island outnumbered the number of white slave owners, and discontent among the black slaves ran high. Tensions mounted and soon the slaves began to rise up against their captors. But the slaves were not the only unhappy group on the island.
Small property owners wanted to get rid of the regulations placed upon them by the large property owners, who were discontent with the restrictions placed on them by France. Slavery was completely abolished on St. Martin in 1848, and the last sugar plantation was closed in 1915. Following emancipation, St. Martin's economy suffered a major depression for about the next 100 years until around the mid-1950s. During this time, the freed slaves on the island made a living from cattle and fishing.
Presently, St. Martin's economy relies heavily on the tourism industry and also receives income from petroleum refining, offshore finances, and trade with other islands in the Caribbean. The prosperity of St. Martin's economy is closely tied to the outside world, as the island relies heavily on imported goods. Since St. Martin produces very few consumable goods, the island receives imports such as crude petroleum, food, and manufactured items primarily from the U.S. and Mexico. The St. Martin government is making efforts to diversify the island's economy with the establishment of facilities for light industry and manufacturing and some heavy industry without imposing on the tourism industry, which is the island's primary bread winner.
The biggest economic boost for St. Martin came with the construction of the Princess Juliana International Airport, which helped to make the island more accessible to tourists. Up until 1985, the French side of the island experienced considerably slower growth than its Dutch counterpart.
St. Martin has the highest per capita income of any island in the Caribbean and a well-developed infrastructure. But because of poor soil and inadequate water supplies, the development of agriculture has been slow. As of the year 2000, agriculture made up just 1 percent of St. Martin's GDP, while industry composed 15 percent, and services, which are found mainly in the tourism industry, dominated the economy at about 84 percent. In fact, about 85 percent of the labor force on the island is either directly or indirectly related to the tourism industry.
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