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POINTE BLANCHE – St. Maarten is the only port in the Dutch Kingdom capable of accommodating Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship – an accomplishment that was praised by partners in the cruise industry and highlighted by government officials during the ship’s inaugural call here Wednesday.

Deputy Leader of Government and Harbour Affairs Commissioner Theo Heyliger, speaking at the reception held aboard the ship, thanked former Leader of Government Island Councilwoman Sarah Wescot-Williams and present Leader of Government Commissioner William Marlin for “putting their trust” in him and ensuring unanimous approval for the harbour expansion projects over the years. “Who said we all can’t work together?” he asked.

Among those in attendance were Netherlands Antilles Prime Minister Emily de Jongh-Elhage, Dutch Minister of Interior Affairs and Kingdom Relations Guusje ter Horst, Dutch State Secretary for Interior Affairs and Kingdom Relations Ank Bijleveld-Schouten, Lt. Governor Franklyn Richards, members of the Island and Executive Councils, and several representatives of the private sector.

The arrival of Oasis of the Seas in St. Maarten is a compliment to the hard work of St. Maarten people, who have now made the island the first in the Dutch Kingdom with a harbour that can accommodate the world’s largest ship, Heyliger said.

Rotterdam, with the largest container, gravel and fuel ports, is no longer the only one with firsts in the Kingdom, he added.

As St. Maarten strives to become a country, it must show that it can take care of itself, and the strides made at Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise and Cargo Facilities have proven that this is possible, the commissioner said. “I hope the change to country status is on the right track, because St. Maarten is on the right track already.”

He also commended Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. for its continued partnership with St. Maarten and presented key players from the company as well as government representatives of all levels of the Kingdom with plaques to mark the historic occasion. A similar plaque presentation was made by the ship’s officials to local players.

Marlin said the island looked forward to many more visits from Oasis of the Seas and thanked Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. for “bringing the Titanic of the 21st century to St. Maarten.”

Tourism Commissioner Frans Richardson said that many other countries wanted to have Oasis of the Seas visit their ports, but St. Maarten was one of the few prepared and ready for the large vessel. He lobbied for tours of school children to be allowed aboard the ship so they could see this marvel of the world.

St. Maarten Harbour Group of Companies CEO Mark Mingo said cruise ships kept coming to St. Maarten because the passenger experience continued to be good and because of the quality of St. Maarten as a destination.

“St. Maarten has again played a leading role in the industry [with the berthing of Oasis of the Seas],” Mingo said, pointing out that the first Royal Caribbean ship to visit St. Maarten had been Song of Norway with 750 passengers, 39 years ago. Today, the island can receive Oasis of the Seas with a capacity of 5,400 passengers. The ship will be in port every Wednesday for the rest of the high season and will be joined by sister ship Allure of the Seas in November 2010.

“A little city will be pulling into port [of St. Maarten] every week,” Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. Senior Vice President of Land Operations Craig Milan said at the plaque exchange ceremony held aboard the ship.

Working with St. Maarten on Genesis Project, as Oasis of the Seas was code-named, had been a good experience, Milan said. “St. Maarten was the easiest port to work with by far. Commissioner Theo Heyliger really makes things happen. The island partners with the [cruise] industry and then takes the ball and runs with it.”

Security screening took place on the pier for the first time, in newly-built and movable security buildings, the purpose of which is to process passengers faster when they head back to the ship. “This is the gold standard in security-checking,” Milan said, adding that the same system was used in St. Thomas when the ship was in port there Tuesday. This pioneering system is expected to migrate to other ports in the coming years.

St. Maarten has benefited from tremendous and continued growth in the cruise industry since 1990s, thanks to the government’s commitment to developing the destination. However, the private sector also has a role to play in balancing the benefits for the island, said Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. Vice President of Government Relations for the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia Mike Ronan.

Ship’s Captain Bill Wright, who has been coming to St. Maarten for many years aboard cruise ships, said the island “keeps getting better and better,” and that berthing at the new mega-cruise ship pier had not required much effort as the design worked well with the ship.

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