Argyle International Airport. (iWN file photo)

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.” (November 12, 2015)

***

It was heartfelt, it was heartbreaking. It was extreme joy, it was bone-crushing grief. It was fiery hot, it was icy-cold. It was true love sprouting… it was true love dying.

“It’s like we were both trying to hold onto something that was slipping through our fingers, and we didn’t understand why.” (S.C. Stephens, Thoughtless)

Though many joyful airport boasters have reminded us that, “Rome wasn’t built in day” to justify the dismal takeoff of our “huge game-changing” Argyle International Airport (AIA), I nevertheless contend that on the first anniversary of nonstop flights from North America, Feb. 14, 2018 — Valentine’s Day, an occasion when “true love sprouts” — it is possible to assess Glen Beache’s statement by predicting the airport’s travel picture five years from now.

For starters, neither WestJet nor most of the eight or more other carriers the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) has been negotiating with since 2008 have committed to servicing AIA, a facility “international” in name only.

The check-in area at AIA is like this at least 90 percent of every 24-hour day, a sign of a jumbie airport if there ever was one.

In the case of Air Canada, its 17 weekly flights from Toronto, Dec. 14 to April 12, could accommodate 2,312 passengers in the unlikely event that all the seats are sold for every flight. If 30 per cent of passengers are foreign tourists and not returning Vincentians, another inflated figure, this translates into 694 passengers. If 50 percent of these tourists would not have travelled to SVG save for the presence of AIA, another exaggeration, this represents only 347 true tourist passengers. These are clearly “icy-cold” numbers.

Using the same assumptions for the 16 Sunwing flights between Dec. 16, 2017 and Aug. 29, 2018 from Toronto on aircraft carrying a maximum of 181 passengers translates into only 434 international tourist passengers, a sure sign of “true love dying.”

On Feb. 2, Caribbean Airlines announced a weekly nonstop flight from New York to AIA on planes with 154 passenger seats beginning March 14. Using the same assumptions as above, this would add a “heartbreaking” 1,200 new international tourists from SVG’s premier holiday departure city.

Assuming that the addition of other carriers or increased service by existing ones swells the number of 1,981 new tourists holidaying on the mainland because of the convenience of a non-stop overseas five years from now by fivefold (or 500 per cent) — an outlandish prospect even with the reopening of Buccament Bay Resort and the completion of a new resort at Mt. Wynne — this would see an increase of only 9,905 new holiday visitors and more “bone-crushing grief.”

Given our historically low accommodation occupancy levels, this increased number of guests could easily be housed by our existing stock of mainland hotel rooms (see essay number 36 below), even if the crumbling Buccament Bay Resort is never reopened or the Black Sands Resort at Mt. Wynne is never built.

Based on the approximately 60,000 stayover passengers who landed at the now abandoned Arnos Vale airport in 2016, an increase of 9,905 new bona fide international tourists five Valentine’s Days from now would represent a mere 16.5 per cent increase, a far cry from the 300 per cent increase, or 23 times my projection, prophesied in June 2014 by Cecil McKie, our Minister of Tourism who argued:

“… [W]here 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.”

What Mr. McKie’s incredible forecast falsely assumes is that the Vincentian diaspora visitor rate would miraculously skyrocket solely because of the construction of an international airport.

None of these figures (which I have grossly inflated to preclude claims that I have deliberately lowballed the possible growth in passenger numbers) suggest that AIA would justify its construction and allied costs based on its value-added contribution to our economy as a whole. Indeed, discounting the hundreds of thousands of dollars in concessions paid to the airlines for unsold seats, even a new tourist passenger figure of 9,905 would not come close to allowing us to break even from an economic spin-off perspective, given the debt servicing, maintenance, and operational costs of the airport, together with the additional infrastructure and tourist enhancement/promotion expenses needed to spark this new arrival level.

The baggage area at AIA is this deserted over 90 per cent of every 24-hour day, truly the spectre of a ghost airport.

Other reality checks are also necessary. My exaggerated figures for the three airlines ignore the observation that many of these new passengers are in-transit tourists who chose to land at AIA only to take advantage of the cheap ferry ride to their final destination in Bequia (EC$25 one way).

My inflated assumptions also ignore the fact that both the Sunwing and Caribbean Airlines flights outside the tourist high season (December to May) would contain a handful of foreign vacationers.

These more realistic assumptions would at least halve the number of new foreign guests to around 1,000 passengers in the short-term and to no more than 5,000 if a miraculous explosion of visits to our tourism-challenged mainland takes place in the mid-term.

Meanwhile, our hundreds of competitors with mature and popular tourist industries in the Caribbean and elsewhere will continue to expand and improve their existing holiday attractions and accommodations over the next five years ensuring that they would always be two steps ahead of us.

Finally, all these “heartbreaking” figures need to be placed within the context of the Prime Minister’s repeated but preposterous claim that AIA is a national asset valued at over EC$1 billion: no private entity would ever pay even a ha’penny for an airport which is such a stand-alone financial liability with an EC$320 million outstanding debt and EC$20 million in annual operating costs.

The true value of the airport lies only in its social and psychological value – it has made travel from overseas to the mainland more convenient for our people while satisfying their “airport envy” inferiority complex (see essay 9 below) – together with its value-added economic impact on the rest of the economy based on the arrival of thousands of new tourist passengers who would not have come to St. Vincent Island save for the presence of nonstop overseas flights, something we would never see enough of to balance the airport’s liabilities.

Rather than a celebration of love, affection, and friendship, this Valentine’s Day, like the one before and those to follow, will be a time for “heartbreaking reflection and bone-crushing grief. Loving AIA, is “like trying to hold onto something that is slipping through our fingers, and we don’t understand why”.

***

This is the 69th 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
  54. Is Air Canada also a ‘huge game-changer’ for AIA?
  55. St. Vincent’s mainland tourist attractions
  56. How St. Vincent’s tourist attractions stack up lessons for AIA
  57. Lessons from Guyana for AIA
  58. The world’s best tourist islands: Lessons for AIA
  59. Explaining Argyle airport on St. Vincent Island 
  60. Explaining Argyle airport: A clash of axioms
  61. Questions and answers about the Argyle airport puzzle
  62. More questions and answers about the Argyle airport puzzle
  63. Explaining Argyle Airport: Concluding remarks
  64. A ‘loaded question’ logical fallacy: Argyle Airport’s legacy
  65. Argyle airport’s opportunity cost
  66. What cruise companies are telling us about our tourist industry
  67. Bottom feeding with the Palestinians
  68. How welcome is Air Canada Rouge?

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

16 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe if the government made Saint Vincent a more welcoming place things would be different. The fact that the capital city Kingstown is pretty much crumbling doesn’t help, not to mention the roads which are horrible as well. There is also absolutely no advertising about Saint Vincent….. if the government wants to attract tourists they need to clean up their act on infrastructure and provide a more welcoming environment.

    • Unfortunately there is little to advertise on the mainland which is why most tourists have always gone to the Grenadines.

  2. Kingstown is not a beautiful city, it is not even qualified to be a shot hole place given that you can’t even find a decent toilet in the city.

  3. Ok C son of David, the AIA proverbial Rubicon has been crossed there is no going back. The question is what do we need to do to make it productive? SVG need constructive criticism. Contrary to what some say, you are obviously a very intelligent person and no doubt with great ideas. I would like to hear your recommendations on how to improve things in SVG. It’s much easier to criticize than to construct. How can we maximize the AIA to our benefit? The AIA was and still is a great idea. You seem to be an excellent writer. I am sure if we were to give your pen to an average person he would not be as prolific as you. Also if we give hammers, nails, saws, and wood to a group of skilled carpenter, and to a group of novice we would see two very different outcomes. The AIA is not a solution, it’s an access, a means, a potential key to economic success. It is whether those who are in charge have insight, knowledge, skills and talents to successful negotiate the potential risk ahead.

  4. I have been asked and answered this several times in my 69 essays and dozens of additional posts.

    To briefly repeat, I contend that AIA could never be productive enough in terms of being a net benefit to our entire economy to have made its construction worthwhile. This is because it would never see enough tourist traffic to come close to balancing the costs of its construction, debt financing, and operating costs. This is because the mainland of St. Vincent does not enough tourist attractions, compared to most of our neighbours, especially miles of white sand beaches to attract the tens of thousands of new tourist to match its construction costs, debt servicing, and operation. This has always been known at the highest levels of government which is why no previous government, including our British colonial masters, were foolish enough to built an international airport decades ago.

    If this is true, why was it built? AIA was never built to attract thousands of new tourists; it was built only to attract thousands of voters to the polls to vote for the Unity Labour Party. In this way, it is has been a tremendous political success.

    So, contrary to your assertion, AIA was the furthest thing from being “a great idea” or “a potential key to economic success,” just as many other failed international airports around the world were not great ideas nor keys to economic success but rather politically or even criminally motivated efforts to maintain power or ensure graft and corruption.

    Accordingly, all the “insight, knowledge, skills and talents” in the world could not turn St. Vincent Island into a highly desirable mass tourism destination.

    Yes, there is no “going back”; only “going down” into more debt and misery for our people as the years pass and the promised transformation to a high employment and prosperous nation never materialize.

    Alas, this straightforward answer to your question has mainly fallen on deaf ears and blind eyes.

  5. C. Ben on FACEBOOK boasting of 69 pieces of TRASH. You haven’t done a good job at all, you haven’t accomplished anything, in fact, AIA is doing well while C.Ben David, SVG’s buffoon, struggles to find an audience. You’re being swamped. AIA has received tremendous support, locally/regionally/and internationally. Our support is solid!

    • In what way is AIA doing well? Certainly not in servicing thousands of new non-stop tourist passengers who what not have flown here anyway without AIA.

      I know you are feeling it; I know it hurt you. But such is life.

    • Calling me a “buffoon,” an illogical ad hominem attack, only makes you look like one.

      Too bad you can’t carefully, empirically, and logically debunk any of my findings and interpretations but have to resort to insulting me instead, a sure sign of a dim bulb dunce.

  6. Pam, you’ve lived on Mars? Why utter rubbish when you does not have all of the facts? Its better to keep your mouth closed. You’re being dishonest. If nothing is being done, please explain the (55,955) stay over visitors, from Jan-Sep 2017?

    • Most if this number are people coming here, many Vincentians, transiting from elsewhere, including Barbados and Trinidad, not the nonstop international tourists the airport was built to attract, of whom very few have land between January and Septermber 2017.

      Why do you dleiberately choose to deceive readers by pulling an irrelevant number out of a hat?

      • Nearly all these 55,955 passengers flew here on LIAT.

        Observer, it is clear that you didn’t even read my piece or most of the others I have written to be able to post such fart.

  7. C ben- David….Exceptionally talented, Specially gifted… he sees things reasonable people are not able to see, understand & rationalised.

  8. You’ll never achieve anything, you continue to spin top in mud with your 69 pieces of TRASH. Have you been able to stop AIA traffic? Self-praise egoistic idiot. Tell us how many likes you’ve gotten thus far, how much influence you’ve had on the general public regarding your essays? Have you been able to sway the masses? Relax you old self, read bed story to the kids. Go lecture to the youths on the blocks, leave AIA/SVG alone.

  9. From my first post I truly believe Saint Vincent could be a very prosperous place for tourism if it was cleaned up and advertised. I do not dispute the numbers of people that have flown into AIA but can you prove they were all tourists actually staying on the island? Or were they people just coming home to visit? Or were they tourists in transit to other islands? Without facts and proof of what the numbers actually signify they are simply just numbers pulled out your bottom! The government must find away to clean up the island and make it more attractive. Black sand beaches are beautifully rare but can you tell me how many on the island are accessible to tourists with easy access? Tourist go to the Caribbean to get away they want a beautiful escape with modern amenities can you absolutely say without a doubt that Saint Vincent offers that? Can you say Kingstown is a clean welcoming environment for tourists…offering clean sanitary washrooms?, food service?, and a safe environment? Until that happens I fear the island will suffer. Without tourism what do you have?

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