The J.F. Mitchell Airport in Bequia. (Photo: Gianni Deligny/airliners.net)

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]. 

(In Response To: “The Missing Argyle Airport Feasibility Studies” by C. ben David, published Jan. 4, 2016)

Mr. ben David: I can understand your frustration with the professional inadequacy surrounding the Argyle International Airport project. However, the implication that the Bequia airport, like the Argyle International Airport, was never subjected to feasibility study is an unfortunate re-write of history.

Proper guidance can be gleaned from a clear understanding of the facts surrounding the establishment of the Bequia airport. As early as 1974, Sir William Halcrow and Partners in association with the UK Transport Development Unit produced a design for a 4,000-foot runway at Paget Farm. Studies were undertaken for this report by, among others, the Caribbean Meteorological Institute and Airline Pilots, with British technical assistance.

The World Bank Report on Tourism, dated April 20, 1982, stated that “The Grenadines are the area of most tourism potential”, stressing that priority be given to the development of “certain basic facilities, notably jetties and airstrips”. In October 1985, the European Investment Bank approved financing for the Bequia Airport Feasibility Study.

In May 1987 the final Feasibility Study by Wallace Evans and Partners was presented to the European Commission. This regional project was approved by 14 Caribbean and 12 European governments to be grant-funded under the Third LOME Convention.

All through the exercise, competitive tender procedures followed exhaustive advertisement in several European languages. Over 100 firms applied at the design stage, settling down to a final 15 firms from various European countries. Through these processes, the German firm of Kocks Consult GmbH was selected in June 1988 as Design and Supervision Consultants, with Interbeton/Ham of The Netherlands selected as Contractors in December 1989.

The Bequia airport went through over 41 stages of analysis, performance and certification procedures. These included the historic wave studies to determine the height of construction needed above sea level, and the critical Environmental Impact Assessment Study, which was submitted on Aug. 16, 1989.

The deep vibro compaction of the dredged sand was completed in November 1991, less than two years after the contract was awarded to Interbeton. (The dredge left Bequia to be deployed in the Hong Kong airport construction). Six months later, on May 15, 1992, The Bequia Airport was officially opened.

All stages of the development are a matter of public record and available to those who seek it. The Bequia airport project, complete with a 1,100-metre runway, was certified by the European Court of Auditors as executed within budget and on time. The final cost was EC$62 million with EC$6 million counterpart contribution from the Government of SVG, mainly in land purchases and re-settlement of affected residents.a

Already mobilized in the country, Kocks Consult was then also used to develop the airports in Canouan (Caribbean Development Bank and private sector funding) and Union Island (funded by Taiwan), and to make airport recommendations on mainland St. Vincent. Interbeton/Ham was mobilised on the Cruise ship berth (financed by the European Investment Bank and Kuwait) and the Campden Park port (funded locally).

Your suggestion that deterioration of the airport building in Bequia is a lesson for Argyle entirely misses the point. There is no longer night landing in Bequia as equipment was taken away to supplement Canouan. Failure of washrooms and instances of corrosion after 20-plus years of atmospheric salinity should not be linked to project approval by the European Commission.

No, the right lesson from Bequia for Argyle should be that the successful execution of an idea or vision requires the preparation of plans by consultants who are recognised experts in their particular field. Crucially, performance levels in construction must also meet international standards.

Without an airport in Bequia — an island of beautiful white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, pleasing scenery and a long-standing tradition of welcoming hospitality for visitors by land and sea — the major hotel and villa investments from which both Bequia and SVG continue to benefit would never have been attracted. The same equally applies to airports in Mustique, Canouan and Union Island, linked to Palm Island and PSV.

When you refer to the “few tiny aircraft” that service Bequia (and by implication the other Grenadines airports), I wish to remind you that these aircraft, primarily the sizeable 19-seater Twin Otter, constitute the lifeline of tourism in our islands. This activity is the backbone of the country’s tourism economy affecting amongst other areas investment, construction and employment, as well as being the prime source of our essential tourist dollars.

Should anyone doubt the impact of the Bequia airport and the vibrancy of tourism in the Grenadines as a whole, they need only check activity at the Grenadines wharf on any day of the week, and compare it to any other place in Kingstown.

However, we urgently need open skies competition to lower prices and stimulate travel in our region. Cheaper air travel will not only attract more tourists; it will also give greater mobility to local residents who cannot afford the current limited service. Lower taxes would increase the volume of traffic overall and enhance revenue growth. Sixteen years of recurrent surpluses satisfy this authority.

Time to abandon the antiquated rules in our region that inhibit the deployment of modern, technologically superior single-engine aircraft for commercial use, as the rest of the world has already done. The latest Cessna Caravan and Grand Caravan workhorses can then be deployed to maximum effect throughout the Eastern Caribbean, following the successful example of St. Barths, Belize and the Seychelles among others. A reliable and affordable shuttle service within the Grenadines and to neighbouring islands is long overdue.

While I admire any attempt to unveil mental blockage in our society, we should promote what works. Aircraft in the Grenadines may be tiny, but they are efficiently and effectively operated. And looking ahead, potential investors already recognise that the addition of just 100 metres to the runway in Bequia will fulfil the original 1974 Halcrow concept and provide accommodation for private jets. An even brighter future is indeed within reach.

Let us not abandon the principle that small is beautiful, a concept that applies to both St. Vincent and to her sister islands.

Now let us praise great works!

Sir James Mitchell

Jan. 25, 2016

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].

9 replies on “Bequia Airport — an essential lifeline with an even brighter future”

  1. Is this the same writer who sold us the Ottley Hall bag of goods?This is the last person that any one should listen to when it comes to projects and economic viability. Maybe this is a good time to tell us about the ISTRANKA and the marina in Union Island that was supposed to supply the Yachts; as well as the Bloody Bay and Chatam Bay projects in Union Island the were so glowingly portrayed in the House of assembly. Fifteen years and counting the NDP remains in the wilderness because of the decisions!!!!Give St Vincent a break!!!!!

    1. This comment is a typical diversion from the subject of the article that is used all too often. The article discusses the planning (including a feasibility study which Mr ben David’s article said was not done) and construction of the Bequia airport. Instead of discussing whether or not the facts as presented are accurate this comment talks about other projects which, in the opinion of the writer, were ill-conceived. Even if all these other projects were not well planned does that negate the planning and execution of the Bequia airport? If I work on 5 projects, one of which was well done and four were badly done, does that mean that I can say nothing about the one that was good because the others were bad. is it not possible that precisely because I failed in the four, I was then able to analyze the one to understand why that one was well done?
      According to Sir James’s account, quite a number of people and organisations were involved in this project. Is this accurate, or is it not? And if it is accurate, were ALL of these organisations misguided?

      1. Whoever said this project was “well done?’ A project is judged by two basic yardsticks; EFFICIENCY and EFFECTIVENES. Efficiency measures time, cost and quality etc of execution and operation and effectiveness measures how well it serves its intended purpose. The airport was anticipated to have infinitely more traffic than it has today so it is not a success except probably for frangipani. Do you remember the writer skipping fishermans day on the mainland to meet with the Bequia airport taxi drivers. To be that important that means that the expectation was scores of taxi drivers lined up to transport passengers, i’ve been to that airport an all I saw was a few agents siting around bored out of their mind. this writer has always been delusional and as I said the suffering of the NDP is 100% due his misguided decisions

    2. My reply has basically been written but I’ll delay sending it in until I clarify a few issues and let my last piece get some notice.

      Two key issues to ponder in the meantime:

      1. how much his reply to me resembles Rudy Matthias’s reply to Herbert Samuel about the absence of an Argyle airport feasibility study.

      2. how our former “small is beautiful” philosophical position contrasts with his “big is beautiful” projects when he was in office: Ottley Hall shipyard disaster; Financial Complex eyesore; bus terminal traffic nightmare; Kingstown market tomb; cruise ship terminal semi-white elephant; Mt. Wynne road diversion to make way for big hotels.

      Sounds to me like think small, plan big.

  2. Is this the same writer who sold us the Ottley Hall bag of goods?This is the last person that any one should listen to when it comes to projects and economic viability. Maybe this is a good time to tell us about the ISTRANKA and the marina in Union Island that was supposed to supply the Yachts; as well as the Bloody Bay and Chatam Bay projects in Union Island that were so glowingly portrayed in the House of assembly. Fifteen years and counting the NDP remains in the wilderness because of these decisions!!!!Give St Vincent a break!!!!!

  3. Nice piece Sir James! but you owe the nation an equally crafted explanation as to why you sold our country to this man Ralph Gonsalves who is now shaming our country left right and centre internationally. In the 80s and 90s our country was well respected, thanks in part to your government, internationally. Please, I am pleading to you, tell us why you back stabbed the party you founded and the nation, to a man like Ralph? He has now brought the country to less than its knees.

  4. I did not know that so many planes fly into Beqia airport. I thought most all came by boat.
    What Sir James says about taxes is true. Although most taxes were far lower in SVG in those days and much of the world, Sir James had about the world’s highest Corporate Income Tax, at 40%. SVG still has a very high Corporate tax at 34% when many countries have reduced. However those countries with high corporate tax have most other taxes low. This is not true in SVG. When Customs Duties and Governmental Fees are considered, SVG is among the highest taxed countries in the world. Not only do airlines not want to come to the Caribbean, especially SVG, but businesses don’t either. What business wants to go to a country and pay the highest taxes, along with all the other disadvantages, untrained people, poor work ethic, etc…That is why our government has given up trying to really improve the country, instead they just try to get as much money as possible from the economy so that they can live luxury lives and pass the government on to their children.

  5. Patrick Ferrari says:

    Then, the Bequia airport makes you want not to plan … enter the ULP and Argyle.

    Removing parts from it, for whatever reason, writes it off psychologically. It removes or negates the authority to inspire maintenance: If you butcher it, why should I fix it?

    The Bequia airport – a misnomer, it is an airstrip – is a sad site. The airstrip at Rabacca is just that. It is not an airport and it is better maintained, by far, and more practical than its counterpart in Bequia.

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