Wednesday, 18 January 2017 04:16:35 (AST)

Opinion

Lessons from Barbados for Argyle Airport

The mixed sand beach (coral and volcanic rock) at Villa, SVI.

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

As this long series of essays slowly winds to an end, I have left until now what may be the best regional two-case comparative evidence that Argyle International Airport (AIA) will fail to meet its visitor expectations because there was no compelling reason for its construction.

Much can be learned from a side-by-side assessment of international tourism and allied features in Barbados and the mainland of St. Vincent (St. Vincent Island or SVI) if only because the two islands are very similar in some ways and very different in others, exactly what is needed for good comparative analysis.

Being roughly at the same latitude and longitude and separated by only 179 km (111 miles) of ocean, being about the same size in area (see Table 1), having a similar history of sugar plantation slavery under British Crown colonial rule, and now sharing a nearly identical system of governance and a relatively free market economy, it would be hard to find two islands more suitable for comparison.

Table 1. A comparison of key features: Barbados vs. St. Vincent Island

Barbados St. Vincent Island
Population size 282,000 104,500
Area 432 sq km (167 sq mi) 344 sq km (133 sq mi)
Geology white coral limestone black volcanic lava
Terrain flat; gently rolling hilly; mountainous
Climate subtropical subtropical
History former sugar-cane slave society former sugar-cane slave society
hotel development late 1800s 1920s-1940s
Regional flights 1939 1940s or thereabout
Regular overseas flights 1953
Pure white sand beaches 61 (some pink) 1 (imported sand)
Per capita GDP $EC 44,000 $EC 18,700
Total visitors (2015)** 1,303,272 157,460
Stayover visitors    591,872 75,381
Number of rooms          5,500     750
Cruise ship passengers    711,400 82,079
Landed cruise passengers    121,578 13,953*
Direct GDP tourism contribution 10.8 percent 5.4 percent

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

**Excludes yacht visitors

Source: Data from three Caribbean travel sites.

But there are many differences as well, as Table 1 clearly shows. Barbados has nearly three times the population of St. Vincent, a product of: (1) its much earlier British colonial settlement than SVI (1625 vs. 1763) which translated into nearly a 140-year head start in the lucrative slave-based sugar industry that by the first years of the 19th century was already in decline and (2) its much flatter terrain meant cane could be grown in every corner of the land (versus SVI where the vast, mountainous, very wet, and hard to reach interior has never been cultivated) thereby allowing for a much larger slave and free labour force.

This larger population size is partly responsible for the fact that Barbados had over eight times more total guests in 2015 than SVI because some of these visitors were permanent or long-term diaspora residents returning home on holiday, to conduct business, or for some other purpose. But this accounts for a small portion of overall visitors (and barely a handful of cruise ship passengers), most of whom are non-Bajan North American and European tourists.

Another difference between Barbados and SVI is the antiquity of tourism on the two islands. Barbados has been an important tourist destination for so long that there is a book written about it:

“… [F]rom the early days of tourism … the steamship era of the late 1800s, with the establishment of that gracious Victorian lady the Marine Hotel … until World War II, Heritage and Health were the two big attractions of Barbados. The Marine opened in 1878 but was massively expanded in 1887. The tramline was established in 1885, and smaller hotels quickly grew up along its route, from Bridgetown and the Garrison (the original Seaview) through Hastings (Ocean View, Balmoral and others, all the way to St. Lawrence, while the ‘health resorts’ of the Crane and Atlantis soon became famous”.

The area from Crane Beach to Bridgetown is the entire span from the southeast to the southwest portions of the island, equivalent to the coastline between Stubbs and Lowmans Bay on our mainland.

The famous Crane Beach Hotel which was opened in 1887 and totally renovated and expanded just a few years ago and renamed the Crane Resort is a national treasure known around the world:

The site of a small commercial port in the mid-18th century, Crane Beach and its surrounding district assumed the name of the area’s most recognisable scene – the raising and lowering of cargo by a crane. A mecca of cool breezes, Crane Beach attracted scores of the island’s plantation owners and prosperous merchants who sought the reputed ‘healing’ powers of its waters” (Crane Resort visitors site).

Pink sand Crane Beach as seen from the overlooking Crane Resort.

In short, tourism in Barbados was well established long before the invention of the airplane, more testimony that existing attractions draw visitors, not the other way around. Actually, Barbados’ aviation history began when a single-engine plane from Guadeloupe touched down on the fifth fairway of the Rockley Golf Club in 1929. Ten years later, the first scheduled passenger service from Trinidad began from the grass runway of Seawell International Airport, renamed to Grantley Adams International Airport (GAIA) in 1977, located almost on the edge of the southern tip of Barbados.

The first terminal was built in 1949, regularly scheduled flights to England began in 1953, and new routes added as required by external demand for them. The airport has been renovated and expanded on a regular basis since its inception: a new terminal was built in 1956; the present air traffic control tower was completed in 1976; between 2000 and the present there has been a major upgrading of the runways, taxiways, parking aprons, and approach lighting;

a new arrivals terminal has been built; the older terminal has been renovated; new spacious departure lounges and an expanded duty-free shopping area, executive lounge, and restaurants have been added.

All this has been done to meet a growing inflow of international and regional passengers: tourist arrivals tripled from around 200,000 to around 600,000 between 1976 and 2016.

Today, some 19 international and regional passenger carriers, plus many charter and cargo carriers, have regularly-scheduled flights arriving and departing the aviation hub of the Eastern Caribbean, handling daily flights to and from the other Caribbean islands and connecting to major cities in the US, Canada, UK and Europe.

The lesson to be learned from this is the same one I have been relentlessly preaching for over two years: airports are built and enlarged to address an actual or reasonably expected rise in the supply of passengers, not the reverse.

Conversely, the story of tourism and aviation on SVI has been so limited that there is not much of a story to tell. Many of us older heads know that the Kingstown Park Guest House, probably the site of the first Government House, was owned and managed by the aristocratic mulatto spinster, Nesta Paynter, a civil servant who ran the establishment for decades until she sold it in her old age to the first of at least three different owners of what is now Grenadine House at Kingstown Park.

Many old timers will also remember Olive’s Hotel behind the gas station on Back Street owned by outstanding entrepreneur Sammy Ballantyne, and the old Haddon Hotel at Frenches, refurbished a few year ago, owned by another well-regarded businessman, Silky DaSilva, as well as the tiny Heron Hotel, still functioning, and the Blue Caribbean (long converted into retail and office space) on Bay Street.

What about the rest of our hotel and guest house history, such as its presence in the early 20th century before these other establishments were in business? All I could find is the following photo, possibly taken as early as the 1920s, suggesting there were some seaside health resorts catering to regional and overseas tourists on the mainland 100 years ago. (I assume that any others were at the Indian Bay/Villa area.) As for the details, nobody knows and nobody cares.

The same holds true of our aviation history though there is indirect evidence (via an Internet site that I cannot fully access) that Arnos Vale Airport (later renamed E. T. Joshua International Airport) began regularly scheduled flights to other Caribbean destinations during the 1940s. (To be sure, a careful search of our archives and old editions of The Vincentian newspaper would tell the complete story but I am not home and cannot do this research from abroad.)

What I do know is that most people continued to travel by boat to surrounding destinations long after regular air travel began to and from SVI. This included the thousands of migrants who went to Barbados and Trinidad to search for work between the mid 1940s and at least the mid 1970s, the hundreds of persons who returned from Aruba, Curacao, and Trinidad where they had often spent decades working during same period, and the thousands who migrated to England between the early 1950s and mid-1960s in search of a better life. The latter cohort travelled all the way to England by boat from Kingstown even though they could have travelled there (at far greater expense but with much more comfort) via aircraft using the Arnos Vale and Seawell airports. So much for needing planes, regional or international, to encourage people to travel long distances when it is in their interest to do so.

One of SVI’s early hotels as shown in a 1920-1930 photo.

What then accounts for the huge eight-fold disparity in stopover tourist visitors between Barbados and SVI? It cannot be the sun and the sea which we both share; it cannot be the difference in population numbers which I have already discussed; it cannot be the large variation in overall wealth, per capita GDP, and infrastructure between the countries because these are a product of: (1) Barbados’ long and profitable sugarcane industry (the result of a terrain ideally suited to the growing of cane) that produced a continuity of estate ownership in the same family lines which, in turn, fostered a commitment to infrastructure and other development that was lacking on SVI where estates changed hands repeatedly or were owned mainly by British merchant and banking interests even before the abolition of slavery in 1834 and (2) a slow but steady increase in tourism earnings, especially after the Second World War, augmented by wealth derived from the financial and information services, light industry, construction, and other sectors beginning in the 1960s that are far more developed in Barbados than they are here. (The huge size of the non-tourist sector in Barbados also explains why tourism accounts for less than 11 percent of direct GDP.)

 

It cannot be because Barbados has over seven times more hotel rooms than we do — these rooms were built in response to past increases and reasonable prospects of future gains; it cannot be the presence of an international airport because the origin and expansion of the airport was the result of steady increases in overseas visitors; and it cannot be because of the existence of dozens of special attractions (except for the premier one) on a flat, densely packed island with no forests, mountains, lakes, rivers, or nature reserves (and only one underground tourist cave), that collectively do not exceed what is available in nearby islands, including our own.

Still, all this negative evidence needs to be tempered by four qualifications.

First, Barbados does have a vibrant nightlife, elegant shopping in attractive, clean, and uncongested Bridgetown (because, like most other Caribbean countries, Barbados prohibits the kind of choking street vending that has nearly destroyed our capital), excellent and varied cuisine, five golf courses, and several other attractions (which can easily be perused by visiting the TripAdvisor travel site). But these all developed to complement the needs of the growing number of visitors who went there mainly for something else.

Inviting, litter-free, and uncongested Careenage area in Bridgetown, Barbados.

Second, several luxury hotels and resorts have indeed been built or renovated to attract new visitors – Sandy Lane, Sandals, Crane Resort, and others – who might go elsewhere to satisfy their extravagant needs. But this does not negate the overall trend that, except at the super-elite and low budget margins, hospitality supply is built on hospitality demand.

Third, in a vibrant and growing tourist market, new hotels and resorts are constructed on the reasonable expectation that growth will continue in a world constantly getting richer, more populated, and increasingly cosmopolitan.

Fourth, tourism in Barbados has never been an economic cure-all in this higher middle-income country. The economy continues to show signs of weakness after going into deep recession in the 1990s, off-shore finance, agriculture, fishing, rum production and export, and light manufacturing still make a substantial contribution to overall GNP, and dozens of hotels representing hundreds of rooms have been closed, are for sale, or are barely surviving in the cutthroat hospitality industry.

Despite these four qualifications, the answer to my question, “what then accounts for the huge eight-fold disparity in stopover tourist visitors between Barbados and SVI” lies in Table 1 and is … surprise, surprise … Barbados’ 61 white and pink sand beaches, most of them public, all them clean, all of them natural, all of them tempting.


Rundown Little Tokyo area surrounding the cenotaph in the heart of Kingstown.

 

This and allied attractions is why so many more of our wealthy citizens – in both numbers and proportion – have always flown to Barbados on holiday than Bajans have travelled here to enjoy our mainland.

Given what I have argued here and elsewhere about our mainland tourism potential, especially our declining tourist numbers over the past 16 years, why have we built an international airport on an island with one bogus white sand beach on a small stretch of Buccament Bay whose now-shuttered resort instantly reduced our mainland hotel room capacity by nearly 15 percent on December 14, 2016, was only able to complete 102 of its promised 1,200 rooms, and is unlikely to every reopen because the size and complexity of its debts and multitude of competing investors?

Ask Ralph.

***

This is the 41st 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
    40. St. Vincent’s cruise ship numbers are much lower than we think

 C. ben-David

IWN Conversations

11 thoughts on “Lessons from Barbados for Argyle Airport

  1. C. ben-David says:

    Dave from Toronto, you miss the point once again or just refuse to accept our intrinsic limitations, like so many others. This airport would simply not allow us to “embrace the opportunities for tourism, trade, investment, etc.” because these do not exist on the mainland.
    The airport is a means of transportation, nothing more, nothing less.
    Where there are no people and goods to transport, little trade, even less investment and no “etc.” what good is an international airport — except as a poppy show to win elections?
    You, like countless others, assume that, “St. Vincent Island has lots of potential” and that the airport will unleash that potential. I resolutely dispute that contention as I will show in my last three essays.
    This is not a matter of patriotism or working together. It is about a cold, hard calculation of our opportunities, constraints, and liabilities, an assessment of which has forced me (and a handful of others) to reluctantly conclude that building this airport was a big mistake and that running and maintaining it will be a big drag on our overall growth.

  2. C. ben-David says:

    Addendum: Actually, Arnos Vale airport opened in 1961 which means that regular regional service on the mainland took off later than I originally thought:

    https://caribaviation.net/2016/07/20/1934-svd-st-vincents-first-airport/

    Many thanks to Vinciman for pointing this out to me on another site.

  3. Brown Boy USA says:

    Nice piece of work on the article. I appreciate the information and insight.

  4. Brown Boy USA says:

    In this country, it’s do whatever you like and don’t ask question because everything done for the ‘betterment’ of the country, REALLY? I wish our people could wake up from the self gratification attitude and see what’s really happening in our country and hold our politicians accountable.

    • C. ben-David says:

      If the opposition and the media (except this one) doesn’t hold the government accountable, how can you expect ordinary people to do so?

      The NDP is now claiming that it always supported construction of an international airport and only opposed the poor planning and financing.

      Not true.

      In fact, the party was silent or actually opposed the airport’s construction until the eve of the 2010 election when, to their shame, they jumped on the ULP airport bandwagon.

      So why did a know nothing nobody like me living overseas and a few others at home and abroad like Peter Binose, Patrick Ferrari, and Herbert Samuel have to take the bull by the horns by exposing this boondoggle for the scam that it is?

      And what happened to our local intellectual elite? Oh, I forgot, most sold out to the Comrade years ago.

      The fallout from Argyle will haunt and curse us for decades to come.

      • Dave from Toronto says:

        The fallout from Argyle will haunt us for decades if we all sit on your hands while reading and believing articles written by people who are waiting for it to fail just to say “I told you so”.

        However, it will be a cracking success if politicians, businesses AND individual citizens embrace the opportunities for tourism, trade, investment, etc.

        A rowing boat will never go forward if all rowers just sit there and stare at each other waiting for someone else to do the rowing. It would also not go forward if some rowers are rowing in reverse or complaining about the size of the waves. It will only get propelled swiftly when all rowers are rowing in unison.

      • Lostpet says:

        Although I cannot deny any of your information, I personally am not against AN airport. This one is unfortunately a fiasco. it was rushed and poorly conceived and planned. I would have done it over a long period of time (although this airport was done over a long period of time, and I am sure we will find out its cost was much higher than we have been told) so it would not destroy the economy as it has. I also would have made sure it was well planned (pointed in the right direction and placed in a better place) and not the stillbirth we now have.

      • Brown Boy USA says:

        That is our problem as a people, we see others such as the politicians and media as mechanisms to address and solve problems. Does it really matters whether the opposition (NDP) supported or did not supported the airport? The fact of the matter is that the airport has been built (not completed) but it is there. Therefore, it would be pointless for the opposition to oppose the project at this point because it is there and millions of dollars has already been spent. Too many times we blame the politicians, but we are the ones to allow them to get away with what they are doing because we (the people) sit back and wait for others to address the problem than joining forces to get things done. This is still our county, never mind our lands are being sold to foreigners at an alarming rate. People change country, not politicians and the media…you know that.

  5. Lostpet says:

    All the information you provide in your essays should be a wake-up call to policy makers and planners, instead many seem to be living in a fantasy world of false dreams, taking the rest of us into economic decline.
    To make the airport actually work is going to take a lot of work, a lot of time and intelligent people. Time we have. The ability to work is missing and we seem to be in short supply of intelligent people in government. They fail to realize that lowering taxes to lower prices and create jobs in any and all industries is the first step in a long process to even begin to create an ability for us to even afford to have and maintain an airport. Maybe we need someone in the opposition who is able to convince the people that we are a failed economy, and explain how we can correct it. We will continue into poverty unless a change is made.

    • peter says:

      Lostpet, unfortunatly you really are still making the assumption that the airport can be made to pay for itself. It simply cannot, with all the engineering problems which will remain problems.

      The cost is the killer. LP if you owned a shop and bought things to sell which are worth 50 cents tops retail and you have got to sell them at $10 dollars because you paid $9 dollars what will eventually happen? You will go bankrupt because you would never be able to generate the necessary revenue to fund the operation. That is the problem with Argyle it took ten years to build a 4 year project. The cost of 10 years against 4 years is the killer, it increased the cost of the airport by at least a 100%.

      We have an expensive airport built on lies and political trickery to a sub standard verging on, if not downright dangerous to the travelling public.

      • C. ben-David says:

        Peter, you and I are are outcastes for what we have written about Argyle airport. But sometimes outcastes have the contrarian ability to see through all the bullshit we have been fed since 2005.

        A lot of former Argyle skeptics will now blindly jump on the airport bandwagon now that it is partially operational. And, they will be lead by the hypocrites at NDP headquarters.

        You, I, and one or two others will soon be the last men standing for the truth.

        But we are both strong individuals who would never place blind and ignorant nationalism ahead of the search for truth and justice.

        Remember all the millions who blindly followed their Führer to the promised land of death, destruction, and the Holocaust?

        Yes, I grossly exaggerate for effect but we do actually have a mini-Holucaust waiting to burn us up at Argyle.

        Remember the few righteous ones who refused to do so in Nazi Germany and the conquered lands, risking and giving their lives in the process?

        Sometimes the righteous minority is just plain right! Peter, this is one of those times.

        Forget our petty bickering of the past and walk tall with me hand in hand.

        If there was ever a time that people like us with different perspectives needed to join forces and speak with one loud voice, it is now.

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