Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace is questioning the government’s projection of increased tourist arrivals in 2015 because of the Argyle International Airport, noting the government has also saying that no international carrier has committed to fly to the airport.
The EC$729 million international airport, the nation’s first, has been under construction since 2008.
The project has missed several completion deadlines, including December 2014, when it should have been “substantially complete” and ready to receive flights from the middle of this year.
The airport “will be completed this year and ready for operation,” Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said in his Budget Address last week.
He said that the marketing of the airport continues apace and several airlines have expressed interest in adding St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) to their routes.
“Air service agreements are expected in the first half of 2015 with several of them,” Gonsalves said.
Eustace in his response to the Budget, read in Parliament last week media reports in which Minister of Tourism Cecil “Ces” McKie and head of the Tourism Authority Glen Beache addressed issues relating to the airport and the tourism sector.
McKie told reporters last August that the government did not know which airlines are interested in flying into Argyle International Airport.
“You don’t have one airline committed to fly into St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 2014 — not one!” Eustace said.
He noted that Beache, who was Minister of Tourism at the time, said in October 2010 a number of major airlines has expressed interest in flying to SVG when the Argyle airport is completed.
“I can guarantee this, that we will have at least one major airline coming in from each of the big three countries. When I say that, I mean Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom,” Beache said.
Speaking to the Vincentian media after returning to SVG from a number of trade shows in Canada, Beache cited feedback from West Jet Airlines, Jet Blue, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airlines, and other airlines.
“I think out of all the meetings that took place, British Airways was the most promising … I think if we had finished negotiations in terms of certain things being put in place, British Airways was ready to sign on the dotted line,” Beache told the 2010 press briefing.
Eustace said that in light of Beache’s comments in 2010, he was “confused by his statement in December” 2014, when he told the local media that given that SVG has no history of direct international travel, there is no way of knowing what sort of traffic will come into the country, once the airport is open.
“We didn’t know that all the time?” Eustace said, adding, “Yet you are projecting increases.”
The Opposition Leader noted that Beache had said that the airline would not want to take “all of the risk”.
“We didn’t know that all the time? Which investor takes all the risk? Only an idiot investor, and he wouldn’t be an investor for long,” Eustace said.
He noted that Beache also said in December that SVG would have to help the airlines with some of the risk, saying, “That’s going to be the sticking point.”
“You haven’t decided that in December 2014, but you are projecting your arrivals on the assumption that airport will be open and planes will be flying to bring the people. Who are you fooling?” Eustace said.
He, however, told lawmakers that the part of Beache’s comments that “gripped” him, was when was the former tourism minister said, “This has been an eye opener for me.”
“This is the man who’s negotiating since years ago — four and five years before 2012 — and he is saying this, in terms of the risk, is an eye opener for him.”
Beache had noted to the press briefing in December his expertise in marketing, saying, “I mean marketing is my forte, but the airline industry has so many intricacies. Are we going to waive the apron fees? Are we going to waive the landing fees? Are the crew members going to be able to stay free overnight? Are we going to take up that cost or are the airlines going to take up that cost?”
“These are the questions we are asking in December 2014, with an airport that we say is going to be opened in 2015, that was to open last year? We are not serious! We are not serious! This is the head of the Tourism Authority, who is responsible …to the minister, for the industry in St. Vincent and the Grenadines — and a former tourism minister.
“He says that is a sticking point and that was an eye opener for him. After years of negotiation, you don’t know that the airlines want some concessions? You can’t tell me that. You cannot tell me that. We are not serious on that matter. “While work is going on the airport, I don’t believe that you having any airport for 2015 anyway. But this is what you are saying. This is what you are saying. And this is what the CEO of the Tourism Authority is saying. Mr. Minister, you agree with that?” Eustace said.
He further pointed out that Beache said that the airlines would not fly to St. Vincent if doing so is unprofitable.
“You mean to tell me Beache now know that the airlines won’t come unless they going to make a profit? Come on, this is 2014 — the end of 2014. Mr. Minister, you couldn’t possibly agree with that,” Eustace said.
This is a Nansi story you know –this whole thing here. I don’t know if you gave him authority to make that statement, Mr. Minister. This is a very serious matter. Here we are talking about an airport costing hundreds of millions of dollars — we don’t know the full cost yet — and six months or so before it opens, the person responsible for negotiating with the airlines now finding out if they can’t make profit they ain’t coming,” Eustace said.
He pointed to the experiences of other countries in the region.
“We know all along that St. Lucia and Grenada in their airports had to pay American Airlines to land. So you don’t expect that you have to give concessions?
“Come on! What nonsense is this? Are we serious about this industry? Are we even serious about the airport? Because its benefits are supposed to come by bringing increased … passengers and after all these years, you can’t get anything done in terms of airlines coming in? What’s this?
“Mr. Speaker, no airline is coming here unless they can make money. You know that is an axiom — it is a truth which is self-evident that can be accepted without a thought,” Eustace said.