The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of I-Witness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].
Except for unfortunate gaps and unintentional errors here and there, which I hope others will address or correct, finding the data for these essays was a simple tap on my iPad in this Internet age. Critiquing the never-ending construction of Argyle International Airport (AIA) has been even easier given the project’s long list of glaring shortcomings, even for an airline, airport, and travel industry novice like myself (whose only credentials for writing these pieces is a Ph.D. in one of the social sciences and 45 years of holiday travel to 15 different destinations throughout the Caribbean archipelago, and whose only motives have been intellectual curiosity, a desire to engage the public in a long needed evidence-based debate about AIA, and a sense of patriotic duty).
It is regrettable, though not unexpected, that many readers have found my comments overly “negative,” even “unpatriotic.” As a professional academic, I tried to present my findings as accurately and dispassionately as I could to counter the many false, silly, and deceitful assertions made by members of our tourism establishment and their politically-motived or uninformed sycophants. Yes, the truth often hurts — especially for a people who have been conditioned to view all public policy through the distorted lens of party politics or who have been socialised to interpret any criticism of their party or country, however valid or well intentioned, as an assault on their sense of national identity — but it can also be wonderfully liberating.
As for my lack of patriotism, the concept has been termed “the last refuge of the scoundrel” (Samuel Johnson, April 7, 1775) when referring to a false patriotism lacking grounded conviction or thoughtful contemplation. What I take from Samuel Johnson (a British slavery abolitionist well ahead of his time) is that those who stubbornly and mindlessly reject any negative assessment of their homeland regardless of its accuracy or motivation are not true patriots at all but people who either suffer from some sort of national inferiority complex, or have something to gain (politically, socially, or economically) from supporting the status quo, or who can only blindly love their country because, well, it’s only country they have. This is an empty even dangerous “patriotism” that can lead to self-deception, censorship, victimisation, xenophobia, or worse.
Not unexpectedly, so-called negativism and presumed anti-patriotism are differentiated in our small land on the basis of socio-economic position: the have-nots are much more realistic about our country’s limitations simply because they have to cope with them day in and day out; the various elites, being the main beneficiaries of our grossly unequal distribution of wealth, power, and privilege, are naturally our main cheerleaders.
What many of these false or blind patriots would refuse to acknowledge most of all is that the criticisms that I and others have levelled against the AIA project are just the tip of an unprecedented tropical iceberg, one that deliberately hides from view so much more damning truths that will eventually sink us with debts, despair, and lost opportunities.
But not everything can be hidden. A drive out to Argyle or a visit to our mainland tourist sites, beaches, and recreational venues should immediately tell all with eyesight — if not vision — and a bit of international holiday travel experience that AIA is nothing more than a graveyard of deceitful promises.
The most recent of these deceitful promises is a claim by Sabato Caesar, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, that, “The new international airport currently under construction at Argyle in St. Vincent and the Grenadines is expected to play a critical role in enhancing the viability of the local fishing industry…. The minister said that investors are likely to be more inclined to get involved in fish exports, once the issue of market access is addressed“.
The Minister knows full well that: the tonnes of fish caught by Japanese trawlers in our waters are shipped thousands of miles home to Japan by refrigerated ships (as in commercial fisheries all over the world); no other foreign interests are going to invest in our local fishery when they can continue to steal from our waters at will; we can barely satisfy our domestic needs, especially for large species, due to overfishing; transporting most sea products by air is prohibitively expensive; fish shipped by air or boat from SVG to North America or Europe could never compete with cheaper fish shipped there from Asia and Africa; and we don’t have enough live crustaceans (lobsters, crayfish, conchs, etc.) left in our waters or rivers to export anywhere outside the country.
If deceit and deception were not the political order of the day with this airport folly, we would also have known by now which of the airlines the Prime Minister claims the government has been “in touch with” — American Airlines, JetBlue, Delta, Spirit, WestJet, British Airways and Caribbean Airlines — have made even a tentative commitment to fly here once the airport is open for business; we would have known by now which international or regional hotel chains, even the smallest ones, have the slightest interest in building a resort hotel on the leeward coast or elsewhere on the mainland; we would have known by now which regional or local entrepreneurs or existing hotel owners were planning to substantially expand our boutique resort offerings or build new ones; we would have know — and seen — by now what non-airport infrastructure and facilities were been planned or enhanced to meet the requirements of mass international tourism; and we would have known by now, even actually seen with our own eyes by now, which new and exciting tourist facilities were being built, which were being significantly expanded or altered, and which were being renovated to meet the high standards of our neighbours.
As Sabato Caesar’s and other equally deceitful comments from regime members illustrate, none of this has happened or will happen because AIA was never conceived or constructed to bring thousands of passengers to our country from foreign destinations; it was conceived and constructed only to bring thousands of voters to the polling booth on election day to mark their “X” for the ULP as a sign of their “patriotism”.
Perhaps the best evidence for this assertion are two recent bold-faced Dr. Gonsalves flip-flops.
First, we have the about-turn on revealing the identity of the airlines that we have supposedly been “in touch with.” At a November 8, 2011 AIA symposium, the Prime Minister said that: “We have airlines who [sic] have already indicated their interest and none wants us to mention their names, because, obviously, they don’t want their competitors to know until quite late what they are engaged in”.
Suddenly, either secrecy has been abandoned or we have entered the “quite late” phase with the publication of the above-listed names of seven airlines, most of which would never fly here for economic reasons, as I will show in my last essay.
Second, at the same symposium, the Honourable Prime Minister defended his government’s decision to out-source the management of AIA because the skills needed were not available locally. Dr. Gonsalves even ridiculed the comments of those who questioned bringing foreigners in to manage AIA as reflecting a “… kind of bogus, superficial nationalism, which has no depth…. They know that … we don’t have the skilled personnel now to do it. We have to train them and we have to make sure that the requisite experience is developed and we have that as a process…. That is part of our decolonisation; because the same bogus nationalists who parrot these inanities, they are the ones who are among the most backwards, colonised and unemancipated minds in the country”.
Now, in a dramatic 180-degree turn, the Prime Minister has apparently yielded to a “superficial nationalism which has no depth” by surrendering to “the most backwards, colonised and unemancipated minds in the country” by setting up a new locally run government-owned company to manage the airport once it is completed.
Many Vincentians were pleasantly surprised and heartened by the 2011 out-sourcing announcement, given the public perception of poor and indifferent performance by the current government bureaucracy running E.T. Joshua Airport. So how are we to interpret the dramatic decision that airport management will now be in the hands of “… a new wholly owned government company … staffed by a number of suitably trained and qualified persons,” none of whom appear to have been selected, let alone trained, on the eve of the airport’s newly promised June 2015 completion?
What really happened between 2011 and 2015? In particular, what happened to the “… arrangement with the Boyd Group International Inc., an aviation consulting, forecasting, and research firm from the United States…. The group will assist with the development and execution of air service recruitment strategies for this country, especially the AIA…. The recruitment strategies include developing an air service blueprint for the AIA and building airline awareness through meetings at international conferences…. It will also speak to arranging guided tours of the AIA, key resorts and other attractions for airlines and tour operators and assisting with negotiations of air service agreements with targeted airlines“?
What became of these laudable and necessary objectives?
Perhaps the Prime Minister, the International Airport Development Company, and the Boyd Group were unable to attract qualified and seasoned outsiders to manage the airport because all those invited to do so recognised a boondoggle when they saw one (a remote possibility); perhaps Boyd Group advised the government to manage the airport and the other tourism activities mentioned above on its own (an unlikely possibility given that the privatisation of airport and allied administration has been going on all over the world for decades for reasons of accountability, transparency, efficiency, and integrity); maybe the Prime Minister feared surrendering decision making to an impartial entity which would be quick to expose the airport’s failings, perhaps even the entire project’s imminent demise (a real possibility).
The most frightening possibility, at least for “patriotic” AIA boasters, is that the Honourable Prime Minister simply does not want to waste money, time, and effort on professional managers he cannot easily control when he knows full well that the AIA project is bound to fail.
But there is nothing to gain by limiting blame to deliberate political deceit for this would only lead to an even more destructive self-deception. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Not long from now, we will be taught this painful Bible lesson when we reap the awful truth of what we ourselves have wilfully and democratically sown with our AIA “patriotism”.
Among the many examples of this awful truth is our inability to ever remotely compete with places like the much bigger country of the Dominican Republic which saw its visitor numbers increase by a whopping 45 per cent in 2014 from the year before while our numbers declined during the same period.
Nor can we ever hope to come close to matching tiny places like the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) which received a whopping 1.4 million cruise ship passenger and overnight guests in 2014. This was a 32 per cent increase over the year before, or nearly ten times our number of cruise ship and stay-over arrivals, a figure that decreased last year and has been stagnant or in decline for previous years.
The TCI has also just signed two agreements totalling US$450 million for lavish new resort projects. One of these is with the prestigious Ritz Carlton hotel chain. No wonder one of the TCI, Providenciales, has just been declared “the world’s best [tourist] island” (after scoring second last year) by TripAdvisor based on reviews by the travel site’s visitors.
Meanwhile, we are struggling even to get a single “approval in principle” with some no-name — perhaps imaginary — group of Canadian investors to build a US$200 million hotel in the Mt Wynne area. Rest assured, so desperate in this government to show that AIA is a potentially worthwhile project, if any agreement is ever reached it would be bound to include one-sided interest-free loan guarantees and other potentially damaging concessions.
Again, before anyone counters that we cannot compete with the small Turks and Caicos island chain mainly because it has two international airports and we have none, they should note the following: twice as many visitors arrive there by ship than by plane; only one of these international airports receives most of the overseas traffic; the other “international” airport services mainly the Turks and Caicos and other nearby tourism islands; and many of the Turks and Caicos tourist islands are accessible only by boat.
So why are the Turks and Caicos Islands such a popular tourist destination and St. Vincent Island is not? Everything I have written in these essays and the photo below give the answers.
But “negatively” and “unpatriotically” comparing ourselves to the TCI, the Dominican Republic, and the many other holiday destinations I have referred to in this series also has an important positive lesson to teach us. Rather than trying to emulate places our mainland can’t possibly compete with or pray for economic salvation at the phoney shrine at Argyle we can’t possibly afford, isn’t it high time that we more fully recognised, embraced, and fostered the fact that our “Gem of the Antilles,” to use another tourism motto, also consists of a chain of wondrous Grenadines island jewels of incredible beauty and charm, a perfect complement to our big island in so many ways?
The Grenadines — a magical TCI-like string of pearls in a part of the Caribbean Sea that so many holidayers have always yearned to visit and slowly travel through by all manner of vessel — have long been the heart and soul of our tourist industry and will always remain the main source of its future development.
Why do we need to genuflect to the deceitful development proclamations of our self-aggrandising political class when we have long known what visitors and many of our own people love most about our country?
This is the fourteenth in a series of 15 essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.
My other AIA essays may be found at:
- Get ready for a November election!
- Lessons for Argyle Airport from Canada’s Montreal–Mirabel Int’l
- Lessons for Argyle Int’l Airport from the cruise industry
- Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle Int’l Airport
- Lessons from Trinidad & Tobago for Argyle Int’l Airport
- The Dark Side of Tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
- Why Argyle Won’t Fly: Lessons from Dominica
- Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale
- Airport Envy Vincy-Style
- Fully realising our country’s tourism potential
- Airport without a cause
- The unnatural place for an international airport
- The Potemkin Folly at Argyle
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 [email protected].