The struggling country of Antigua & Barbuda has joined other tiny Eastern Caribbean islands in selling citizenship to wealthy international investors to drum up revenue, officials said Monday.
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-Nevis.
Antigua hopes to generate roughly 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 will 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 R. Allen Stanford, who based his Stanford International Bank on Antigua and was once the country's largest private employer.
Spencer called for islanders who are hesitant about the concept to "trust your government". He said the programme "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 & 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 how to set up its programme.
The strategy is part of a trend in the Caribbean. For years, St Kitts-Nevis and Dominica have given investors citizenship in return for a real estate investment or significant donation. Grenada is planning to revive a programme of its own.
'Investor visas' are offered by many nations across the globe, including the United States and Britain. But the Caribbean countries offer a very fast path to full citizenship at a relatively low cost. The whole process, including background checks, can take as little as 90 days in St Kitts, where there's no need to ever live on the islands, or even visit.
Some Caribbean leaders are opposed to the sale of citizenship, arguing that it undermines the integrity of their country's passport and could dilute national identity.
"When you start to sell your citizenship, you will sell anything," St Vincent & Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told reporters last year.
In Antigua, Spencer said all applications will be carefully reviewed and he's confident the programme will be rigorously managed. He is required to submit a report to lawmakers in six months on how the programme is working.