An Air Canada Airbus A319 Rouge leisure service aircraft.

By C. ben-David

It’s always been about access and direct flights. This airport is a huge game-changer for us,” he [Glen Beache, CEO, St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority] said. Airlines including Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing are still top choices for direct routes once the airport opens. And “nothing is going to happen without Toronto. Toronto is one of the big three gateways for us

The May 3, 2017 announcement by Air Canada that it will be flying from Toronto to Argyle International Airport (AIA) on St. Vincent Island (SVI) beginning mid-December 2017, the first overseas airline to offer non-stop regularly scheduled international service to the country, has been greeted with much jubilation, at least judging from comments on social media:

This is truly history in the making. St. Vincent is on the international map when it comes to International flights. No more waiting in the other islands for us. WOW!” — Gabriel Neverson

This is wonderful news to hear. My family asked me when am I returning home for a visit. I told them I will wait until the Argyle airport is complete and Air Canada flights begin. So now I have no more excuses.” — Carson Gibson

Shot Comrade. Brilliant. What a coup. You gotta be the toughest son of a bulletproof bitch I know. All of them bullets you still standing and landing planes, too.
Son
[former Prime Minister Sir James F. Mitchell] said that you are a tough nut to crack. Well he wrong. Dead wrong. You are simply not crackable. As they say, “you don’t stand down.” — Patrick Ferrari

Before cracking open a celebratory bottle of champagne and terming this service and AIA “a huge game-changer for us,” this announcement must be grounded in their proper context, namely, the likely impact on our hospitality industry.

The first thing to note is that this is a limited service, for a limited period, on limited seating planes, out of a limited destination: one flight per week for 17 weeks between December 14, 2017 and April 12, 2018, departing only from Toronto, carrying just 136 passengers on an Airbus 319-100 plane, the smallest aircraft in Air Canada’s fleet capable of flying nonstop from Toronto to SVI.

This computes to a maximum of 2,312 passengers landing at AIA during this limited period.

This single midweek flight would also have to compete with daily flights to and from Toronto during the same annual tropical vacation season, including high demand weekends, on much larger aircraft connecting through Barbados or Trinidad.

Given all these limitations, there is no reason to suspect that all but a handful of potential passengers, Carson Gibson, for example, would be discouraged from travelling to SVI were this new service unavailable.

Moreover, assuming a highly optimistic 90 per cent occupancy level on these flights, if the same proportion of future Air Canada arrivals as those who formerly landed at the now mothballed E. T. Joshua airport — a figure I have estimated at 33 per cent (see essay number 33 below) — are bona fide tourists booked to stay at one of our mainland hotels, guest houses, apartments, villas, or other rental accommodation this translates into a mere 694 additional foreign holiday visitors, a dismal figure indeed since such travellers are exactly the type of visitors AIA was built to attract.

It is also reasonable to assume that no more than half of these 694 guests would be flying to SVI during this period because of the new nonstop service. After all, as hundreds of years of travel history shows, tourists flock to destinations mainly because of their attractions, not because of the ease of access. Still, even a figure of 50 per cent additional tourist passengers flocking to SVI merely because they would not have to transit through Barbados or other hubs would translate into no more than 350 passengers spread over four months, or less than five per cent of the estimated 7,200 extra-Caribbean holiday guests who landed at E. T. Joshua Airport in 2016 (see essay 49), a painful reminder that AIA was built to accommodate 1.5 million passengers per year and up to 1,000 per hour at peak times.

More important for its financial impact on our economy is the certainty that our government would have been compelled to provide Air Canada with all manner of monetary concessions to induce the airline to service an unknown and unproven international destination. The nature of these incentives and their impact on the overall profitability of our tourism industry and the new airport’s debt level (EC$400 million) and annual operating costs (EC$20 million) has not been revealed.

For those who would claim that, “We have to start somewhere and this regularly scheduled flight is as good a start as any,” my reply would be, “Why do we nearly always fall down near the start of our mainland development projects (such as the quickly aborted revival of sugar production during the Cato regime; the short stint of tobacco growing during the late 1970s and early 1980s; the many Campden Park offshore manufacturing companies which fled around the same time after their tax concessions ended; several aborted attempts to revive arrowroot production around that time and later; the short lived Diamond dairy; several short-term call centre ventures; the notorious Ottley Hall Marina and Shipyard scam; the equally dodgy Buccament Bay Hotel and Resort fiasco; and countless small-scale local ventures that quickly bankrupted their owners)?”

As for airfare prices, the cheapest Air Canada nonstop one-way fare, Toronto-St. Vincent, on Dec. 21, for a single traveller, as posted on May 23, 2017, is equivalent to EC$1,826. On the same date, the cheapest fare to neighbouring Barbados from Toronto is equivalent to EC$1,439. Since many, if not most, holiday passengers are more concerned with securing the lowest fare to the most attractive destination rather than the most convenient connection to a less desirable locale, this 21 per cent disparity is very worrying.

So is the fact that the Dec. 21 Barbados flight — during the peak of the Christmas tropical travel season — on a Boeing 767-300 aircraft with 289 seats was already 35 per cent booked as of May 26 while the SVI flight on an Airbus A319 airplane with 136 seats was only 22 per cent occupied.

Finally, and most critically, why would many more tourists find this new service so attractive when our mainland contains so few attractive holiday delights compared to neighbouring islands (including our very own enchanting Grenadines) and other tropical destinations around the world, as many of my essays have shown?

I contend that our low mass tourism appeal is why this nonstop Air Canada service plus the indirect Caribbean Airlines flights to AIA from New York and Miami, sometimes involving a 16-hour layover in Trinidad (see essay 51), is all the air traffic that Sir Vincent’s wonder boy, Glen Beache, has been able to attract since courting countless international carriers beginning in 2010, if not earlier.

The Air Canada figures also show that the June 2014 claim by Cecil McKie, our Minister of Tourism, that, “… where we welcomed just over (a few) visitors by air each year now [at the Arnos Vale airport], we expect that those numbers will triple in the next two years [from some 50,000 to around 150,000 thousand] once the international airport is opened,” is preposterous.

As I have said before, “If you build it, they will come” certainly does not apply to our hospitality industry.

***

This is the 54th 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
    53. Lessons from St Lucia and Grenada for AIA

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]

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].