The famous five-mile long Reduit Beach, St. Lucia.

By C. ben-David

There is no better evidence that Argyle International Airport (AIA) on the island of St. Vincent (SVI) will fail to meet its visitor expectations because there was no compelling reason, apart from electoral politics, for the airport’s construction than a side-by-side comparison of international tourism and allied features with our two geographically closest neighbours, St. Lucia and Grenada. This is because the three islands share so much in common, while differing in a couple of critical areas, exactly what is needed for good comparative analysis.

Being roughly at the same latitude and longitude and separated by a few miles of ocean, being similar in size and population density (see Table 1), having a shared history of sugar plantation slavery under British Crown colony rule, and now possessing nearly identical systems of independent governance and a relatively free market economy, it would be hard to find three islands more suitable for comparison.

Table 1. A key indicators comparison of St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent Island

  St. Lucia Grenada St. Vincent Island
Population size 185,000 111,000 104,500
Area 617 sq km 344 sq km 344 sq km
Population density 300 per sq km 323 per sq km 304 per sq km
Geology volcanic island volcanic island volcanic island
Terrain gently rolling; mountainous hilly; mountainous hilly; mountainous
Climate tropical tropical tropical
History Slavery-based sugar-cane society Slavery-based sugar-cane society Slavery-based sugar-cane society
Natural white sand beaches 20+ 35+ 2 mixed coral-volcanic rock
Total visitors (2015) 1,088,181 444,391 157,460
International airport 1973 1984 2017
Regularly-scheduled overseas flights 31 per week 21 per week In progress
Extra-Caribbean stayover air visitors 282,163 115,865 53,815
Guest bedrooms 5,000* 1,500 750
Cruise ship calls 387 201 51
Cruise ship passengers 677,394 280,518 82,079
Landed cruise passengers 115,157** 47,688** 13,953**
Yacht passengers 56,799 22,115 6,358
Total visitor expenditure (EC$ M) 1,071.73 392.50 258.51***
Per capita GDP $EC 27,500 $EC 22,500 $EC 18,700
Unemployment rate 25 percent 28.9 percent 18.8 percent
Direct GDP tourism contribution 14.5 percent 7.5 percent 5.4 percent***

*Estimate from earlier years.

**Based on the same 17 percent landed cruise ship passengers as Barbados (see essay number 41 below).

***Includes the Grenadines.

Source: Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, country, and other reports.

Unlike our own AIA, built mainly by selling precious Crown land and borrowing EC$400 million from external sources, St. Lucia’s Hewanorra International Airport was largely financed on the back of a military airport built by the United States in 1941 to protect the island from German attack during World War II. The airport was handed over to St. Lucia in 1952, basically as a gift to the island. It became fully operational with a new control tower in the early 1970s, but did not see serious internationally scheduled flights until 10 years later when St. Lucia already had over 2,000 hotel rooms, or nearly three times our 750 room total, based on decades of increases in tourist traffic to the regional airport outside the capital of Castries (http://sundominica.com/articles/continuing-the-conversation-on-the-international-a-1750/ ).

Grenada’s Maurice Bishop International Airport, opened in 1984, received nearly all its funding from outside, first from the Cubans and then from the Americans who completed the airport after the country was liberated from its unelected and totalitarian communist regime. As in St. Lucia, it took some 10 years to see regularly scheduled international flights by which time Grenada already had over 1,000 hotel rooms, or 130 per cent above our 750-room mainland count.

In short, in both islands, visitor and accommodation increases grew hand in hand for decades despite the alleged “inconvenience” of the existing regional air transport system. The two international airports were built only to accommodate the growing volume of tourists drawn there by the quality and variety of their many attractions.

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

The equally famous two-mile long Grande Anse Beach, Grenada.

 

What then accounts for the large disparity in stopover tourist visitors between SVI and our two close neighbours? It cannot be the features in Table 1 we all share like climate, geology, topography, size, population density, or history; it cannot be because St. Lucia and Grenada have so many more hotel and other rooms than we do — these were built in response to past increases and reasonable prospects for future gains; it cannot be the many more attractions listed in Table 2 below because many of these were developed to complement the needs of the growing number of visitors who went there mainly for something else; its cannot be the stark differences in wealth represented by the per capita Gross Domestic Product figures because these are a result of mass tourism, not their cause; it cannot be the levels of unemployment because these are poorly correlated with visitor numbers; and it cannot be the presence of their international airports because they were built to accommodate steady increases in overseas guests.

 

Our very own mixed sand beach (coral and volcanic rock) at Villa, SVI.

Nevertheless, the answer to the question of what accounts for the huge disparity in stopover and other tourist visitors between these two islands and SVI also lies in Table 1 and is St. Lucia and Grenada’s many white sand beaches and other desirable attractions. (The stark tourist number differences between St. Lucia and Grenada reflect the finer beaches and larger number and variety of desirable supporting attractions on St. Lucia.)

These assertions are supported by Tripadvisor, the world’s largest travel site with more than 60 million members and over 170 million reviews and opinions of hotels, restaurants, attractions and other travel-related businesses, which lists the following “things to do” for these three islands (Table 2).

Table 2. “Things to do” according to tripadvisor

  St. Lucia Grenada St. Vincent Island
Tours 167 66 8
Outdoor activities 156 61 15
Nature & parks 81 43 25
Boat tours & water sports 80 38 4
Sights & landmarks 30 28 14
Shopping 34 12 2
Spas & wellness 18    9 0
TOTAL 566 257 68

Both the key tourism related physical differences between the islands — facts of nature over which we have no control — and the way they have been developed, augmented, and promoted is also why proportionately more of our wealthy citizens have always travelled on holiday to our two neighbours than their citizens have travelled here to enjoy our mainland.

Given what I have repeatedly argued about our limited mainland tourism potential, an observation no better verified than by our stagnant or declining tourist numbers over the past 16 years in the three categories of stopovers, cruisers, and yachters (see essay number 49), why did we build an international airport on an island with one bogus white sand beach on a tiny stretch of Buccament Bay whose large resort (nearly 15 per cent of our mainland hotel capacity) is now shuttered, probably for good?

Ask Ralph.

 

This is the 53rd in a series of essays on the AIA folly. 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
    46. Why Roraima Airways? Lessons for Argyle Airport
    47. Our Argyle International Airport ‘veritable miracle’
    48. From ‘poppy show’ to campaign rally: The Argyle Airport opening
    49. St. Vincent’s 2016 tourism numbers are nothing to brag about
    50. Going forward or marching in place? Lessons for Argyle airport
    51. The Visible Hand of Adam Smith at Argyle International Airport
    52. St. Vincent Island doesn’t need any more hotel rooms

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