Thursday, 23 March 2017 02:28:26 (AST)

Opinion

Why Roraima Airways? Lessons for Argyle Airport

A tiny Roraima Airways plane.

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

Gerald “Gerry” Gouveia is the owner Roraima Airways, a tiny regional charter company flying out of Guyana with five small aircraft totalling 59 seats, with ambitions to make St. Vincent Island (SVI) a Caribbean airline hub. To highlight this desire, he says he will use his ties with two other charter airlines — Dynamic International Airways and EasySky — to make an in-transit stop at Argyle International Airport (AIA) from New York and Cuba, respectively, en route to their final stop in Guyana on Feb. 14, 2017, Valentine’s Day, to coincide with the grand opening of AIA.

Mr. Gouveia’s sudden and inexplicable interest in doing business in SVI should be a cause for concern, if not alarm:

  1. The Guyanese businessman’s claim that he did no market research to determine whether his plans for a regional hub out of SVI would be financially viable makes no business sense given the careful studies and comparisons established airlines carry out to ascertain whether new routes would be commercially rewarding. Instead, he said he simply followed his “entrepreneurial nose” to SVI, an island he had never visited before his three-day trip to attend the ground breaking of the proposed Pace Developments Inc. hotel and villa project at Peter’s Hope on Jan. 19, 2017, yet another project that should make us nervous. A lack of grounded familiarity with SVI is hard to reconcile with Gouveia’s proclamation that, “… we have always have had a good relationship with St. Vincent, the government of St. Vincent”, leaving unspecified the grounds for this relationship except that he was apparently beguiled by informal discussions in Cuba with our Ambassador there, Ellsworth John, and in Guyana, with our garrulous and charismatic Prime Minister.
  2. Gouveia’s plans to set up a regional hub at AIA is a pie in the sky idea at best. There already is a major regional hub in Barbados that connects us to the rest of the Caribbean and outside world; there are two smaller hubs in St. Lucia and Grenada that do the same, and a large hub in nearby Trinidad (283 km or 176 miles away). SVI also serves as a mini-hub for the country’s five airports. Why would we need yet more regional airlines when existing ones fly half empty most of the year?
  3. Even more fanciful is his plan to bring small-scale Cuban traders here to explore shopping opportunities using EasySky, an airline with only three planes, when AIA opens on Feb. 14. What Mr. Gouveia needs to learn is that with some of the highest wholesale and retail prices in the Caribbean and no formal duty-free regime for itinerant peddlers, our goods are uncompetitive with the same items available elsewhere in the region. The argument that visa restrictions would preclude Cubans from shopping in nearby countries for fear of a flood of refugees would also apply to our country which has seen its own share of Cuban freedom-seekers trying to gain residence.
  4. ­More important, is Gouveia’s admission that: “Guyana is now a haven for them [the 1,000 Cubans who travel weekly via EasySky to buy cheap clothing and other goods in Guyana] …. [T]he only thing is that it is dependent on the bad times in Cuba… The minute Cuba opens up [by America lifting its trade embargo] … it means that will stop”. What would also stop would be shopping visits to SVI.
  5. As for commercial or tourist visitors from his other two Caribbean destinations, Honduras (the home of tiny EasySky) and Guyana, both are have-not nations whose small number of wealthy citizens have never been inclined to travel here on holiday or business.
  6. Although Dynamic Airways may be filling a gap in non-stop travel to Guyana from the United States, it cannot compare to Caribbean Airlines, the region’s largest carrier with 17 aircraft and 1,700 employees, and with a Skytrax customer satisfaction rating of 6 stars out of 10. By comparison, airlines like Air Canada and WestJet have scores of 5/10. Dynamic Airways, with a mere six ancient aircraft, has a score of 1/10. Even our own beleaguered LIAT has a much higher flyer rating of 4/10 on the Skytrax site.
  7. The third airline that Roraima Airways links with, tiny Insel Air, headquartered in Curacao, also has a pitiful Skytrax customer rating of 1/10. Meanwhile, Roraima Airlines, Mr. Gouveia’s private company, is not listed by Skytrax, presumably because of its insignificant size.
  8. There is another important lesson for AIA from Guyana, a nation of 800,000 people working hard to become a popular tourist destination based on its large array of attractions. Even though Guyana now greets 200,000 annual stopover airline holiday visitors — 10 times our number — the most frequent non-stop flights from North America are via five flights a week using chronically-late Dynamic Airlines and three flights a week using tiny Jamaica Airways, both from New York City. Except for a few other flights out of Miami, most international routings connect through Jamaica, Barbados, or Trinidad, as do all flights from Europe. This is hardly a good sign for the success of AIA, a facility for which the Prime Minister and his ULP government have used “…. the limitations of air access … due to the absence of an international airport” as their main public relations selling point since 2005. Even if we increased our vacation passenger numbers to 50,000 a year over the next decade, a farfetched feat if there ever was one but still one-quarter of convenience-challenged Guyana, this would still be insufficient cost-benefit justification the construction of AIA.

Finally, there is the problem of “white powder” being transported on Gouveia aircraft, an issue that has been extensively reported. We already have dozens of supposedly “therapeutic” black sand beaches – a medicinal function claimed by the developers of Black Sands Resorts and Villas that we Vincentians have never heard of — and lots of plans for medical marijuana — another divisive issue in our deeply fragmented country — so we don’t need any white powder. It is also worth noting that Guyana ranks 108th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s influential Corruption Perception Index, the third highest in the Caribbean, and much higher than SVG’s thankful rank of only 35. We should just keep it that way.

***

What this leaves us with are two genuine charter arrivals on Valentine’s Day — Sunwing from Toronto and Caribbean Airlines from New York City. What is still unknown is whether these poppy-show flights will be returning the same evening full or empty (or something in between) and whether the Feb. 21 flights scheduled to pick up returning Valentine’s Day passengers will arrive full or empty and whether the returning flights an hour later will depart full or empty.

What I do know is that when I phoned G.G. Tours in Toronto at 1 p.m. on Jan. 31 to mischievously claim (an established investigative journalism tactic) that I was calling on behalf of a group of 12 possible passengers, I was told that the Feb. 14 Sunwing flight could easily accommodate them, a far cry from the prediction by Glen Beache that the flight would be sold out within an hour.

All these considerations should tell us that we will be scraping the bottom of the Valentine’s Day “Labour love” barrel on Feb. 14 and every day after, no surprise given that the bottom of the barrel has long been our place.

***

This is the 46th in a series of essays on the folly of having built Argyle International Airport.

My other AIA essays are listed below:

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
    41. Lessons from Barbados for Argyle Airport
    42. Cuba’s tourism rollercoaster: Lessons for Argyle Airport
    43. What the world teaches Black Sands Resort and Villas
    44. Not all Argyle Airport critics are ‘internet crazies’
    45. The media’s take on the opening of Argyle Airport

 C. ben-David

IWN Conversations

6 thoughts on “Why Roraima Airways? Lessons for Argyle Airport

  1. Lostpet says:

    Keep the information coming. Most of what you write are things that those that live here should realize on their own. Too many people leave comments stating that you want the airport to fail. I feel your purpose is to cause all the Vincentians that live in denial to hopefully wake-up one day and begin to employ critical thinking instead of wishful thinking, and believing it as fact. I hope some of those will at least not be so disappointed when they realize their dreams of SVG becoming a top world tourist destination do not come true. With Ralph’s dream of SVG becoming the highest-taxed nation in the world, this is only helping to scare people away, and will ultimately cause many more to emigrate in search of places where they have a better future.

  2. skeckpalmer says:

    We can ship fish to Guyana and they can ship plantains and probably rice and sugar to SVG. I was told recently that rice and sugar are on the decline in Berbice. Our fish will do well in Guyana because, where I lived in Silver City in the 1950, the fishing boat came up the Demerara River once a week. The Indian farmers grow lots of plantain in Guyana in the 50s but of course I don’t know what’s happening today.

    • C. ben-David says:

      I doubt how much fish we can ship to Guyana given how scarce fish, in general, and certain species, in particular, are becoming in SVG due to years of overfishing. More important, we are talking about air transport here, a mode of transit that is uncommon for marine resources.

  3. C Ben David, with respect to the first point of your essay – I don’t think that you are aware of how many Vincentians settled in Guyana in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. I myself was not aware of this because most of them went to the mining areas rather than the capital and its environs. Communication between these two areas was minimal (think poor roads or coastal schooners, radio links rather than cell phones. When a dear one died, there were special radio times for messages to relatives in what Guyanese call “the interior”, along the lines of “Calling XY, last heard of in the Mazaruni district”). I myself began to realize how many Vincentians were there when I went back to Guyana in 1967 with a Vincentian husband. They knew the name, and many could recognize him because they had known his father, a policeman who had been stationed in various areas and then became a police prosecutor.
    Mining area are well known to Mr Goveia. His original airline businesses are based on Guyanese internal links between the coastal regions and the interior. So I have no doubt he has many Vincentian links, and probably knows far more about St Vincent than St Vincent knows about Guyana!
    One of the things I understand he has been investigating is ferrying seafood and agricultural products from Guyana to other Caricom countries. So yes, he has probably done his homework on Caricom, including SVG.
    Which doesn’t mean that SVG should not do due diligence. Guyana, as I said before, is a transit point for South American drugs, and there are lots of small interior airstrips on which small aircraft can land with the stuff, in addition to the overland routes.
    And as for the much touted Valentine Day charters, I am not surprised that your “12 possible passengers” could be accommodated. Quite frankly, if I were a Vincentian resident in North American, however much I wanted to come home, I would have been extremely concerned about these charters. Presumably I would have been taking a vacation from my job, and so far I have heard nothing about when or how I would be returning. So I would stay put.

    • C. ben-David says:

      My understanding is that even some locals are having their passage paid to New York and Toronto, perhaps including the current Ms. St.Vincent, so that they can return on the 14th along with others whose passage home has been paid for by this government or ULP government (same difference).

      I would not swear to this in a court of law but would not be at all surprised if it were true.

      • C. ben-David says:

        When you say that Goviea has been “investigating … ferrying seafood and agricultural products from Guyana to other Caricom countries” do you literally mean “ferrying” which implies travel by boat which is the predominant way such produce is transported (i.e., shipped) all across the globe because it is much cheaper than transport by air.

        Still, I would be thrilled if Goviea sent such produce here to compete with our very expensive seafood and agricultural produce, a result of overfishing for the former and low productivity (due to a hand-tool technology and small production units) for the latter.

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