Tuesday, 26 September 2017 07:01:55 (AST)
 

Opinion

St. Vincent’s cruise ship numbers are much lower than we think

A cruise ship in Kingstown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. (Photo: Lance Neverson/Facebook)

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitness@gmail.com

From any perspective, our mainland (St. Vincent Island — SVI) tourism industry is in deep trouble on the eve of the completion of Argyle International Airport (AIA). Visitor levels over the past 15 years have shrunk (see essay numbers 3, 27, and 27 below); the number arriving guests of different types — stayover, cruise ship, and yachters — has declined; by comparison, holiday trips to other Caribbean destinations are growing by leaps and bounds; the quantity, quality, enhancement, expansion, and maintenance of our hospitality attractions, support services, and infrastructure leave much to be desired; our biggest mainland resort, Buccament Bay Resort, was shuttered on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, and unlikely to reopen given all the competing and overlapping legal disputes and huge debts of its parent Harlequin group of companies, in the process throwing dozens of unpaid employees out of work and instantly reducing our hotel room capacity by over 13 per cent; and the prospects and potential for a recovery in any of these areas are bleak.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a closer look shows that everything is even worse than it appears on the surface.

I have already estimated that only about 6,500, or less than 10 per cent, of the 75,381 stop-over visitors who landed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) in 2015 were extra-Caribbean tourists who arrived at Arnos Vale airport to stay at a resort, hotel, apartment, guest house, or some other for-profit establishment on SVI (see essay number 33 below).

This figure does not bode well for the success of Argyle International Airport (AIA) whose stated purpose is to substantially boost the number of such visitors. Even if the airport’s eventual operation sees a tripling of such arrivals within two years, the prediction of Minister of Tourism, Cecil McKie, this number would only go up to about 20,000 international tourists, hardly sufficient in its extra-airport spin-off and multiplier effects (the building or more resorts and hotels; the opening of new restaurants, bars, and night clubs catering to tourists; more agricultural production to feed more guests; additional shops and boutiques carrying local craft and other goods appealing to tourists; increased taxi, van, and other tours to our various attractions; and more direct and indirect jobs in all these sectors) to justify building what is bound to be an EC$ 1 billion facility when all the supporting infrastructure is added in, at least 70 per cent of whose costs consist of loans that we, the taxpayers, will eventually have to repay. Then there are the millions of dollars needed to operate and maintain the airport, a sum that could represent less than one-fifth of the aircraft landing fees, passenger departure taxes, and other revenue the airport would generate, if the James F. Mitchell airport in Bequia is any example (see Searchlight newspaper, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016, p. 16). Moreover, if the international airport history of our Caribbean neighbours is any example, enticing regularly scheduled non-stop international flights by paying for a certain portion of unsold seats and providing other monetary incentives would add millions more to the operation of Argyle airport.

Still, there are many people, arguably the bulk of the population, who have always supported the construction of AIA based on the unsubstantiated claims that: (1) large numbers of tourists would never visit an island that lacks an international airport (an assertion contradicted by the seemingly modest success and spin-off effects on other sectors of the economy by the operation of Buccament Bay Resort during its first few years); (2) overseas or local developers would never construct large hotels or posh resorts on SVI without first seeing non-stop international air access to the mainland (an allegation again contradicted by the construction of Buccament Bay Resort, not to mention the robust hotel and villa expansion in the Grenadines); and (3) AIA, by itself, is bound to stimulate enough additional traffic to guarantee its successful operation (a claim made with no supporting evidence).

Since no number of examples from other places that have attracted huge numbers of overseas holiday visitors in the absence of an international airport would ever change their minds, additional sources of local-level evidence are needed to support my assertion that we neither need nor can afford AIA.

The first source of such evidence is our yachting industry which sees nearly all seafarers landing in the captivating Grenadines: of the 47,470 yachters who entered our territorial waters in 2015, only 6,358, or 13.4 per cent, came ashore on SVI (see essay 38 below). Why should we expect many more tourists to visit SVI just because of non-stop air access when so many mariners don’t even give our mainland a second glance on their way to our world-famous cays?

The second line of evidence supporting my claim that everything is worse in our tourism industry than it seems on the surface comes from the cruise ship industry. I have already shown that our cruise ship numbers are the lowest in the Caribbean next to volcano-ravaged Montserrat (see essay 3 below). Even so, the total of our cruise ship passengers for 2015 (and for other years as well) listed as 82,079 in Table 1 is still highly deceptive.

Table 1. Cruise Ship Passengers and Arrivals: Barbados vs. St. Vincent Island

Barbados St. Vincent Island
Cruise ship passengers    711,400 82,079
Landed cruise passengers    121,578 13,953*

*Based on the same 17 percent landed cruise ship passengers as Barbados

Source: Data available from Barbados and other Caribbean tourism sites.

This is because of a seldom mentioned and hardly documented fact about cruise ship visits: the figures published by most Caribbean countries (and others around the world) nearly always list only the “gross” number of passengers on board arriving ships, i.e., the total number of guests lodging on a ship that anchors at a port, a figure that it is obliged to reveal to immigration authorities, but a number that obscures and devalues the number of passengers who actually disembark. This second figure, certainly known but seldom released by tourism authorities, is called “landed cruise passengers,” or what I term the “net” or “value-added” number of arrivals.

The Kingstown cruise ship terminal.

More specifically, it is hardly ever mentioned that most holiday ship ports, even very popular ones in rich countries, see low rates of landed cruise vessel passengers. The trendy Mediterranean tourist island of Malta, a small nation just off the southeast coast of Italy, received a total of 1.7 million visitors in 2014, a substantial 471,554 of whom were cruise ship passengers. Of these cruise ship visitors, only 46,420, or 9.8 per cent came ashore.

What accounts for this low number?

It is important to understand that modern cruise ships are much more than “floating hotels,” as they are often called. It would be far more accurate to term them “all-inclusive floating resorts” that cater to every whim and fancy of their guests. Indeed, although cruise lines earn a lot of money booking and processing payment for many of the onshore tours and other activities their guests pre-select (and often reserve and pay for months before the cruise even begins), most of their profits come from on-board spending on extras not contained in the base accommodation package (which includes three table service and buffet meals, additional snacks, and the use of the ship’s many facilities and services that are listed below).

The bottom financial line in the cruise ship industry is that if guests on a given excursion spend not a cent on these à la carte shipboard extras — alcohol and soft drinks; casino gambling; official cruise photos; wireless Internet access; specialty restaurants; exclusive spa and massage treatment; hairdressing, facials, manicures, and pedicures; purchases in shipboard shops and boutiques, etc. — their round-trip voyage would either barely break even or represent a net loss to the company, especially if few passengers purchased onshore excursions which normally see the cruise ship company keeping 50 per cent or more of the ticket price.

Nearly unlimited alcoholic beverages are available only from elite and truly all-inclusive cruise lines that charge much higher than the average industry rate for unlimited premium alcoholic beverages, larger suites, concierge and butler service, shore excursions, and all shipboard gratuities. On the non-elite cruises that make up the bulk of the industry, any alcohol or other beverages guests try to bring on board are confiscated until the end of their voyage. This is why cruise-ship alcoholic beverages are so expensive, on the one hand, and onshore bars often packed with cruise ship passengers, on the other.

Still, most newer cruise ships provide a mind-boggling menu of regular features: a full-featured casino; shops of all types, many leased by outsiders from the cruise ship company in the same manner as shopping mall stores; a spa, fitness centre, and gym; a theatre with Broadway-style shows; a cinema; one or more indoor and/or outdoor swimming pools with water slides; hot tubs; liquor lounges; basketball and tennis courts; pool and ping pong tables. Some ships provide the free use of bowling alleys, ice skating rinks, rock climbing walls, sky-diving and surfing simulators, miniature golf courses, video arcades, zip-lines, and obstacle courses.

The provision of both regular and optional amenities is why some guests never go ashore while others do so sparingly. This also explains the growing number of “cruises to nowhere” or “nowhere voyages” where the ship makes a two- or three-night round-trip (complete with 24 hour activities) with no ports of call.

All this also explains why many development economists have long argued that embracing the cruise ship industry is the least profitable way for poor countries like ours to enhance their tourism revenue.

These features of the cruise business account for the figures in Table 1. My search of the relevant sources showed that Barbados is the only Caribbean cruise ship destination for which there was published land cruise passenger numbers. The figure for 2015, a typical year, showed that only 17 per cent of all passengers went ashore. How many of these simply strolled around delightful Bridgetown for a few hours and spent not one penny is not known. Still, this number totalled 121,578 people (or nine times the Kingstown number), far too many for the existing terminal to accommodate which is why a new one is being built with the hope that its ultra-modern facilities and extensive services will entice more people to come ashore.

An artist’s rendition of the proposed new cruise ship terminal in Barbados.

What is also not known is the comparable landed figure for SVI, a number that would be known from a study of immigration forms. My assumption that is was the same 17 per cent as Barbados is surely a gross exaggeration based on the following, albeit inclusive, facts: (1) Barbados, in general, and Bridgetown, in particular, have far more half-day tourism-friendly attractions than we do, including duty-free shopping in elegant surroundings, a round of golf, relaxed organised sightseeing, and various beach excursions and (2) my many observations at the cruise ship terminal and on the streets of Kingstown (where I have crudely counted between 150-200 people on different occasions), supplemented by an equally rough estimate of the number of passengers on tourist vans and buses carrying cruisers from the terminal to various attractions outside the capital (my guess being an average of 150-250 per cruise ship visit). If my landed visitor estimate of 13,953 people is accurate, this means 400 people left each ship on average during the year, a figure that roughly supports my informal observations but does not speak well for the desirability of our tourist attractions, a topic I address in a subsequent essay.

Compounding this dismal number is the disappointing overall number of cruise ship visits. For the 2016-17 cruise ship season, only 37 cruise vessels are expected to land at the Kingstown cruise ship terminal, a figure well within the normal range (see Searchlight newspaper, Nov. 17, 2016, p. 17). As low as this number is, it still represents only 17 per cent of the 220 calls at the six SVG ports (the five others being Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau, Mustique, and Union Island). To be sure, the greater number of cruise ship visits to the Grenadines obscures the fact that vessels calling there are, on average, smaller than those that port at Kingstown. But even this observation masks the other fact that the only cruise ship terminal in SVG is the one in Kingstown.

Together with yachting, ferry, and stopover air visits, this suggests, once again, that it is our tiny Grenadines, not the mainland, that is our premier holiday visitor destination.

With so few cruise ships carrying so few passengers, with a small portion of them coming ashore, with at least half of those who disembark spending most of their time in Kingstown desperately trying to the navigate around potholes and obstructive street vendors while gazing with pity, if not contempt, at the frumpish, scruffy, toothless, and loutish underclass who make up much of the “idle hall” street crowd in our horribly congested and hardscrabble capital, why would we expect any more to come just because we have an international airport at Argyle?

The interior of Kingstown’s underused cruise ship terminal.

In sum, if we add the three 2015 figures for SVI — international stayover tourists (6,500), those landing by yacht (6,358), and landed cruise ship passengers (13,953) — we get a total of 26,811 tourist visitors, arguably the smallest such number for any country in the entire Caribbean save volcano devastated Montserrat.

And if we add the number of people who entered our mainland waters by yacht and cruise ship (a total of 129,549), we find that 109,238, or over 84 per cent, saw no reason to come ashore.

With pathetic figures like these, why on God’s earth are we building an international airport at Argyle?

Ask Ralph.

***

This is the 40th in a series of essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.

My other AIA essays are listed below:

  1. Get ready for a November election!
  2. Lessons for Argyle Airport from Canada’s Montreal–Mirabel Int’l
  3. Lessons for Argyle Int’l Airport from the cruise industry
  4. Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle Int’l Airport
  5. Lessons from Trinidad & Tobago for Argyle Int’l Airport
  6. The Dark Side of Tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
  7. Why Argyle Won’t Fly: Lessons from Dominica
  8. Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale
  9. Airport Envy Vincy-Style
  10. Fully realising our country’s tourism potential
  11. Airport without a cause
  12. The unnatural place for an international airport
  13. The Potemkin Folly at Argyle
  14. False patriotism and deceitful promises at Argyle
  15. Airport politics and betrayal Vincy-Style
  16. Phony airport completion election promises, Vincy-style
  17. Is Argyle Airport really a ‘huge game-changer for us?’
  18. Has the cat got your tongue, Prime Minister?
  19. More proof that Argyle won’t fly
  20. Our very own Vincentian cargo cult at Argyle
  21. The missing Argyle Airport feasibility studies
  22. The world’s four most amazing abandoned airports
  23. Farming, fishing, and foolish talk about Argyle International Airport
  24. Argyle Airport amateur hour
  25. Vincent’s place in the world of travel
  26. Investing in St. Vincent’s Tourism Industry
  27. The Argyle Airport prophecy: what the numbers say
  28. Why Qatar? Why St. Vincent and the Grenadines?
  29. Did the IMF drink the Comrade’s Kool-Aid?
  30. Foolish words about Argyle International Airport
  31. ‘If I come, you will build it’: Lessons from the Maldives for Argyle Airport
  32. Urban lessons for Argyle International Airport
  33. Who really lands at Arnos Vale?
  34. No ticky, No washy — Argyle-Style
  35. We have met the Vincentian tourism enemy and he is us
  36. Hotel Saint Vincent
  37. Why St. Vincent Island has so few tourists 
  38. Why Bequia is a gem of the Antilles
  39. Why seeing is believing in the Caribbean tourism industry

C. ben-David

IWN Conversations

9 thoughts on “St. Vincent’s cruise ship numbers are much lower than we think

  1. Dave from Toronto says:

    C.ben-David,

    I see that you have done some research, although I have not had the time to verify any of the data. However, all you’ve really done was to exercise your fingers on the keyboard. I think your final sentence says it all. You are still debating about the need for AIA. Hey, that train has already left the station. I would have been happy to consider your arguments contained in this piece if it were January 2006. However, you keep forgetting that AIA is now substantially complete. If you don’t believe the pictures, you should try to take a tour of the complex (if you haven’t already) to see it with you own eyes. Touch the wall, walk on the runway, etc.

    Your arguments are 10 years too late. It’s time to move on. You and every other vincy now own this airport, not the government. It’s time to offer solutions on how to make it a success. Judging by all the research that you’v done to criticize the decision to construct AIA (and you have that right as a citizen), I’m sure you could research some success stories around the world and share ideas on what accounted for their success.

    You are the guy who is getting suited up for the 100 m race. But, all you are doing is making excuses as to why you are going to lose. Yes, the guy to your right is taller and the one to your left is more muscular and the wind is blowing, etc. But, you have given up before the race has even begun and you keep blaming your parents for driving you 100 miles to the track event.

    Pull yourself together and start sharing ideas. If all you are is the bearer of bad news, then I would suggest that you keep your thoughts to yourself. What we need more than ever are hope and optimism. Young people are going to read your articles and end up with fear and pessimism for the future. Think about kids, think about the kids!

    • Lostpet says:

      Yes, we should offer solutions to make the airport…tourism work. We can start by getting rid of the stupidity in our government.
      C. ben writes these articles so that we living here can come up with the obvious solutions to change our reality. WE are not doing that, and continue to wallow in stupidity and vote for the status quo.

    • C. ben-David says:

      Dave from Toronto, you always write the same tired anti-intellectual stuff:

      1. You say writing about something that has already happened is a waste of time. Why this is so, you do not say but just believing this is a denial of the entire discipline of study called historical description and analysis. Dave, World War II ended in 1945 but every year dozens of books are still published about it.

      2. What would have been the difference if I had written this in 2006 or 2016? Not a thing. It would have made no difference to the eventual outcome of the project which I have never, ever tried to stop. I am not a community activist. I am simply a curious academic researcher who began studying the airport beginning only in September 2014. I will continue to write about the airport as long as my curiosity drives me to do so.

      3. How are are my arguments 10 years to late? This again assumes that I was somehow trying to block its construction. First, my keyboard does not have the power to do so. Second, the Honourable Prime Minister was hell bent to build it come what may. My aim has only been self enlightenment and the desire to share my ideas with people like you.

      4. You say its time to offer solutions on how to make Argyle a success. A nice sentiment, if it were only that simple. First, this sentiment implies that there are actually feasible ways to make the airport succeed, a view I do not share. Second, your view implies that the function of the airport was to carry thousands more tourists to our country, a hypothesis I also deny: the real purpose of the airport was to win one election after another during its construction phase, nothing more, nothing less.

      5. You say that if all I am is the bearer of bad news, I should keep my thoughts to myself. Not a nice thing to say Dave from Toronto because this implies a self censorship which if widely followed would see the end of free speech as we know it which would then inevitably lead to the end of democracy as we know it.

      6. As for our young people, you do not give them the credit they deserve for distinguishing between fairy tales (Argyle will carry us to the economic promised land) and reality (Argyle will sink us in a sea of debt), an absolute necessity if they ever hope to succeed in our heartless world of false political promises.

      7. Finally, Dave from Toronto, if what I write offends you so much, you may either pluck out your eye or just stop reading what I have written.

      • Dave from Toronto says:

        Cb-D,

        I don’t see why you would categorize my responses as anti-intellectual. Sometimes, intellectuals need to parachute down from their ivory towers to understand what is really important on the ground. I think you are missing the whole point on the value of infrastructure such as airports on a country’s (long-term) development. Yes, I am interested in SVG’s long-term development. After all, I still have property there, I still pay taxes and I intend to return home at some point in the future.
        Now, to respond to your your points in sequence:

        1. I did not say that writing about history is a waste of time. I think you need to re-read your own article. The last sentence states ” ……why on God’s earth are we building an international airport at argyle?” Such a statement is relevant to support a thesis on why an airport should not be built. This would have been relevant to argue in 2007, before the construction started. Thesis – arguments – conclusion. Hey, you can’t more intellectual than that. I’m sure you would agree on that point. The point that I’ve been making over the past year or so, largely in response to you, is that we are beyond the stage of your concluding statement. The airport has already been built. Why are you still arguing over why it’s being built? Also, I think you are confusing history versus the news. Yes, I understand that news is history, theoretically. However, the study of history has been one of analyzing and reporting on past events after a sufficient time has elapsed to digest what actually happened to determine successes and failures. Hence, from a historical perspective, again, your timing is off again by 10 years. 10 seems to be your lucky number. AIA hasn’t even started operation. You need to wait at least 10 years and then report on whether it was a success or failure. If it’s bankrupt at that point, then we will all pat you on the back and commend you for being right all along. Take the Invasion of Iraq for example. Many at the time thought it was a real success. Now, 10 years later, they are now reaching a different conclusions. My point is that such evaluation of history takes time before reaching a proper conclusion.

        2 & 3. If you had written 10 years ago against the building of AIA, then if your arguments were strong, you might have been able to persuade politicians and the general public to abandon the plans. After all, SVG is a democracy. The way a democracy works, as I understand, it for each party to pitch its plans and ideas and then let the electorate decide whose plans are worth voting for. The ruling party did, the people voted, they were re-elected several times based on that mandate. What more can you ask for? Either you think that the people of SVG are dumb – to be fooled that many times, SVG is not a democracy or you don’t believe in democracy. Let me know what side of the fence you are on.

        4. I think that you, and anyone who shares that opinion, are naive to believe that a government would build an airport just to win elections. As you mentioned, it cost us $800 million (and I did make a small monetary contribution) to construct AIA. Why on earth would any government spend that kind of money in order to win elections? It would have made more sense to give money to the people in the form transfer payments – handouts. Heck, with such a plan, a party might stay in power for 100 years.

        Also, I never implied that the only function of an airport is to move tourists. Although this could be one of the results, infrastructure spending could provide much more to SVG. In macroeconomics, it’s called the multiplier effect. In a nutshell the benefits of AIA will exceed the costs through a stimulus effect on the overall growth of the economy. More tourists will arrive, leading to increase supply of hotels, restaurants, etc., thus creating jobs in the service sector. There will also be increased foreign investment from the diaspora as well as foreigners owing to the ease of access to the island. Hey, if I have a rental property, it’s much easier to fly direct to AIA, rather than wasting a day at Grantley Adams. I could be in and out to address issues if needed. It also permit local products to be exported easily and quickly to foreign markets. There are many more spinoff effects as well. Researching those positive multiplier effects is where an intellectual can earn his salt.

        5. Well, I didn’t really mean for you to keep your thoughts to yourself. However, I think it would be beneficial to the readers if you could provide a more balanced approach. Sometimes, one need to look at the broader picture. If you were in USA or Canada, for example, I would say to go ahead and say what’s on your mind without limit. This is because there are many avenues to express ones opinion. Hence, it’s easy to find opposing opinions – resulting in a balance of opinion. In SVG, however, the situation is much different. There are limited avenues, such as this publication (Thank you IWNSVG) for discourse on these topic. Hence, your opinion emphasizing doom and gloom could have a negative impact on public opinion with respect to the many benefits that could be had in the future from the investment in AIA.

        7. I never said it offends me. I just think that it’s one-sided and potentially misleading. I think you should also clearly state your name, affiliation and credentials. Are you just a private citizen/a university professor conducting intellectual research/, professional economist/a representative of a nearby island afraid of competition from SVG? I think such information have relevance on how the public perceive the statements and conclusions being drawn.

      • peter says:

        Now! Now! my dear internet policeman PhD Professor of universal studies in rudeness.

        Dave may well be misguided on some points but one thing for sure he does not deserve your unnecessarily rude reply.

        I am sure very few people would read what you write if they knew who a piece was written by before they opened the article and registered a read count which is not deserved.

        When real peoples articles are published a photo of them appears and a reader can choose if they want to open the article and continue reading. Take for instance a piece written by Markie Spring in another place recently. That article got more reads in two days than yours generally gets in a week.

        I believe it is important to to publish a writers name in the teaser so as the reader can decide to read, shelve or perhaps even dump.

        You still owe an apology to Sandra now you owe an apology to the Toronto Kid.

        I suppose Dave from Toronto is me in disguise as well.

  2. skeckpalmer says:

    Pretty good article! I do agree with your observation about the Grenadines pull on tourism. I saw the number of yachts in the Grenadines some years ago, especially at Christmas time. This month there is Boat Show in Toronto that attracts thousands of boat lovers. I ran into many agents selling products at the show who visits the Grenadines yearly.
    I believe SVG had a booth at the show last year and that’s great. If a little more advertisement is done it can do wonders for the tourism industry in SVG. I asked about their dining habits and learned they often go ashore to eat. I found out they also prepare meals on board and this is where I believe SVG can provide the foods for them to use.
    David’s article illustrates how the visitors have all the ingredients on board to keep them there, where they can spend their money. Something similar can be done to get yachters to come ashore and purchase whatever they need. A short questionnaire can accomplish this by asking yachters what they would like to have on their boats.
    I hope one day that folks like David will be able to help develop and create opportunity for SVG tourist industry.

  3. Lostpet says:

    As I correspond with friends in Europe. I am hearing that when those on the Cruise ships ask if they are going to St Vincent, (I know this because they have personally told me!), the cruise ship operators say they are not going to Saint Vincent because it is deemed an unsafe country for tourists!!!!! This is due to our great Prime Minister’s economics that insure high prices by raising taxes and duties, and this not only steers away tourists but also destroys opportunity for locals, and many turn to crime.

  4. Dave from Toronto says:

    Why does it take so long for the moderator approve some comments versus others?

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