The struggling country of Antigua and Barbuda has joined other tiny eastern Caribbean islands in selling citizenship to wealthy international investors to drum up revenue.
The twin-island nation of some 90,000 inhabitants started accepting applications last week for its citizenship-by-investment programme, which is closely modelled on the one offered by nearby St Kitts and Nevis. The government hopes to generate US$550 million over the next three years by attracting some 1,800 new citizens, who have to spend at least 35 days on the islands during the five-year span an initial passport is valid for.
Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer said the revenue would help put the country "on the road to sustainable growth and development". The nation was slammed by the 2008 global economic crisis and the subsequent collapse of the financial empire of convicted fraudster Allen Stanford, who based his Stanford International Bank on Antigua and was once the country's largest private employer.
Spencer called for islanders hesitant about the concept to "trust your government", saying it "should in no way jeopardise the integrity of the national passport" as critics have asserted.
A foreigner can qualify for Antiguan citizenship with a US$250,000 donation or with a real estate investment of US$400,000. A business investment of US$1.5 million can also qualify. There are government processing fees of US$50,000 for applicants and due diligence costs for background checks.
An Antigua and Barbuda passport holder can travel to some 130 countries with "relative ease and without challenging visa requirements", according to Zurich-based Henley & Partners, a residence and citizenship planning firm which advised the government on the programme.
The strategy is part of a trend in the Caribbean. For years, St. Kitts and Nevis and Dominica have given real estate investors and donors citizenship. Grenada is planning to revive a programme of its own.
"Investor visas" are offered by nations across the globe, including the US and Britain. But the Caribbean countries offer a fast path to citizenship at a relatively low cost. The whole process, can take as little as 90 days in St Kitts, where there's no need to ever live on the islands, or even visit.