By Kenton X. Chance
For the last 10 years, Dwight DeBique has been travelling annually along with his son from Toronto, Canada to St. Vincent.
But this year, the trip had one major difference: they had a direct flight from Canada to St. Vincent.
The DeBiques were among the hundred-plus passengers who arrived at Argyle International Airport around 4:30 p.m. Thursday on Air Canada Rouge’s inaugural flight to St. Vincent.
History was again created 10 months after the long-delayed airport began operating.
The Air Canada Rouge flight was the first scheduled international non-stop flight to Argyle International Airport since it began operating on Feb. 14.
“It’s a pleasure, I’ve been coming here for the last 10 years and this is the first time I’m back here straight, so it’s very nice,” DeBique told iWitness News after exiting the arrivals hall.
He said his journey began around 10 a.m., (Toronto time 9 a.m.) and felt he had made the trip in good time.
Before having the option of a direct flight to SVG, DeBique said he would normally fly via Barbados or Trinidad — “multiple countries”, where he has had a lot of bad experiences in the past, including delays and layovers.
“Now, I am here right on time and I am ready to go.”
He said that he has been coming every year for the last 10 years and might come home more often, maybe at Carnival and Christmas, once there are direct flights.
DeBique, said, however, that the direct flight is “not really” cheaper “but more convenient”.
The young Debique, whose first name is Dwashon, told iWitness News that it “feels great” to be able to fly directly to St. Vincent and not have to transit in another country.
Tourism officials have not released data on the demographics of passengers on the flight, but our observation suggests that many of them were returning Vincentians, including a significant number of farm workers.
One such farm worker was Ivsow “Power” Shallow of Byera.
He told iWitness News that he only learnt two days before his flight that he would be flying directly to St. Vincent.
“Man, can’t complain. Pretty good,” Shallow said of the flight.
“Man, I am not lying to you guys. When my boss told me day before yesterday I’m flying straight to St. Vincent, I drop straight pon my knees. Too much a beating up we getting in Trinidad. And I thanks to De Comrade, welcome to De Comrade for what he has done here for us,” he said using the name of endearment of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, whose government built the airport.
Ivsow “Power” Shallow of Byera. (iWN photo)Shallow said he has had bad experiences transiting in Barbados, included having to sleep on cold concrete when LIAT workers went on strike.
He said that last year, he was supposed to take Caribbean Airlines at 9 a.m. in Trinidad but he arrived in Trinidad at 9 a.m. and spent all day at the airport before being placed in a hotel for one hour.
“So a lot of bad experience we ah meet in Trinidad and Barbados. So we happy and we nah lie to Vincentians, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Me so happy,” Shallow said.
Shallow will return to Canada on April 12, the last day on which Air Canada Rouge will operate the once weekly flights during the winter season, using an A319 aircraft, with a capacity of 136 seats.
Tourism officials were on hand to welcome the passengers at Argyle.
Among the officials was Chief Executive Officer of the Tourism Authority, Glen Beache, who noted the historic significance of the flight.
“I think this is a day that some people said would never arrive. Yes, we opened on February 14th the Argyle International Airport and we have had quite a few charters coming into St. Vincent and the Grenadines. But, for the first time, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has received a regularly scheduled international flight coming out of Toronto, Canada. And this is indeed a day that we should all be proud of.”
Beache said he was happy to say that flight arrived full.
“But I am also happy to say that it would be leaving full — at 145 to 150 seats.”
He said the government entered negotiations with Air Canada for quite a while and continue to speak to them and hope that from next year it would move from seasonal to regular flights, year-round.
The Tourism Authority is continuing to speak to airlines from North America and all around the world, including Europe, Beache said.
“And we will have some announcements to be made early in the New Year, 2018.”
Meanwhile, Minister of Culture, Cecil “Ces” McKie described the arrival of the flight as “a huge moment”.
“This is, in fact, a huge moment for the government and people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for the Argyle International Airport and for the visitors and returning nationals who … have come in on this flight. It is a huge day for travellers in and out of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, McKie told the welcome cocktail at which passengers on the flight and other guests were served light refreshments.
He said that the journey towards Thursday’s flight started over 10 years ago with a reality call and a vision.
“Yes, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we have a beautiful country. We have a gem. In fact, we have the Gem of the Antilles”
The tourism minister said his government is also aware of the fact that it has a very varied tourism product.
“And we are also aware of the fact that we have probably the most hospitable people anywhere on planet earth.”
He, said, however, that all of this is not sufficient because “we cannot keep all of these positive attributes to ourselves where the tourism product is concerned. We have to have the opportunity to show off all of these positive attributes and we have to be able to sell them.”
McKie said the nation is aware that the major hindrance was access to the destination, adding that the arriving passengers, without exception, commented about the beauty of the airport and the privilege to be able to fly directly to SVG.
He said that while it took SVG’s close neighbours over two years to get scheduled flights, SVG has done so in 10 months.
The minister thanked Air Canada Rouge for agreeing to establish “a relationship and a contract to fly to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in a scheduled way between the months of December and April next year”.
He said that the flights for December along with chartered flights to be operated by Sunwing — beginning on Sunday — are all filled and some of them are also full on the return leg.
“Very encouraging and very soon, very, very soon, we will be able to announce other scheduled flights from other parts of North America and we are aggressively pursuing our ability to also announce scheduled direct flights from the UK.
“So very shortly, you will get an update, and hopefully we will be able to confirm those announcements.”
McKie noted that nation’s Nine Mornings festival, a unique celebration and the increased cruise arrivals this year, with a cruise call almost daily.
“I’m saying thank you for coming to destination St. Vincent and the Grenadines. You have now added to our statistics in terms of arrivals and we want to say thank you in a very special way. Do enjoy your stay in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and encourage your family, your friends, your loved ones to come to the destination as well,” the tourism minister said.