By C. ben-David
A superficial look at the 2017 St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) visitor arrival statistics (see Table 1), says we just had a great tourism year. After all, a one-third overall leap in visitor numbers over 2016, perhaps the largest one-year increase in our history, is nothing short of remarkable. Moreover, this visitor increase is the second largest since 2001, enhanced by a cruise ship passenger jump of an astonishing 75 per cent. No wonder Cecil McKie, Minister of Tourism, is grinning from ear to ear.
But a closer examination of these numbers, the role played in their generation by two back-to-back, extreme Caribbean weather events, a comparison to visitor statistics among our neighbours, and an understanding of the true purposes of Argyle International Airport (AIA) should make the rest of us grimace with disappointment.
Table 1. SVG Visitor Arrivals by Type, 2001-2017*
|Year||Yachters||Cruise Ship Passengers||Air Stayover Arrivals||Total||% Change|
*Based on data compiled by the SVG Tourism Authority.
- Yacht visitors. While there was an 8 per cent year over year increase in our yacht visitors, the 2017 figure is still 23 per cent below the average of the 17 years in Table 1. Why our yacht numbers have been on a general decline since 2001 needs more careful analysis but in the media-savvy Caribbean sailing community, the increase in crimes against yachters in our waters has certainly played a role.
It is also worth noting that, as usual, most of the yachters anchored in our enchanting Grenadines, a reflection of the chronic physical neglect of our beaches and inshore waters, the lack of appeal of our black sands, and the paucity of recreational and beach bar/restaurant facilities on the leeward coast of the mainland.
- Cruise ship visitors. Minister McKie’s opinion is that the dramatic increase in cruise ship visits in 2017 was, “Because there is a new interest in the destination St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Investors are coming in and talking to us. … I want to say to you that that interest is only there because of the Argyle International Airport.” This dramatic increase could only have occurred in the unlikely event that many cruise lines simply dropped some of their traditional destinations to visit SVG instead. But as is well known, it was the severe damage to the tourism infrastructure, including cruise ship facilities, by hurricanes Irma and Maria on Sept. 6, and 17, 2017, respectively, in a number of Caribbean countries and territories (Anguilla, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, and the US Virgin Islands) that prompted a last-minute change in cruise ship schedules to include trips to previously unvisited destinations like SVG.
As usual, a disproportionate number of cruise ships anchored in the tiny Grenadines, despite the absence of terminals or other infrastructure, testimony to the far greater holiday allure of our beautiful, white-sand cays.
- Visitors by air. Despite a disheartening 3.5 per cent decline in stayover visitors from 2016 to 2017, also 4.5 per cent below the 2001-17 average (see Table 1), Minister McKie has chosen instead to focus on the deceptive figure of overall arrivals which he claimed increased by 11 per cent, a number that includes both tourists and local residents, the latter almost all native-born Vincentians returning from overseas. Since these residents would have had to return anyway regardless of the existence of AIA, they should not be deceitfully used in annual comparisons of our tourism numbers.
Equally important, of actual visitors, most were not foreign tourists, the category of people AIA was built to attract, but Vincentian living abroad returning home for a visit, a feature Minister McKie has acknowledged. But there is not a shred of evidence to support the view sometimes expressed by various parties that many such Vincentians have refused to visit in the past because of the alleged inconvenience of having to transit through Barbados or Trinidad.
What is also disappointing is that this 3.5 per cent decline occurred on the back of several new nonstop international flights beginning on Feb. 14, 2017. Not a good airport take-off, to say the least.
As if all this were not enough, my discussions with taxi drivers servicing AIA suggest that the bulk of foreign visitors on the nonstop Air Canada flights from Toronto are on their way to catch a cheap 6 p.m. ferry to Bequia, an inauspicious sign indeed of AIA’s future.
- The 2017 experience of our neighbours. Though not all figures are in, 2017 has been a banner year for Caribbean tourism despite two horrific hurricanes. Our three closest neighbours, St. Lucia, Grenada, and Barbados registered an increase in stopover visitors of 11 per cent, 8 per cent, and five per cent, respectively, while the Caribbean region as whole, including the hurricane-ravaged islands, saw a 1.7 per cent increase. So we continue to be at the back of the pack despite an international airport.
- The true purpose of AIA. These disappointing stopover numbers and the acceleration of our competitors only serve to shine more light on the true purposes of AIA. The first purpose, as I have repeatedly argued, was to ensure the victory of the Unity Labour Party from one election to another, a goal it has brilliantly performed.
The second purpose is more opaque but just as important. For many Vincentians, including the tens of thousands who would never use the facility, AIA is exactly what the Honourable Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves has always said it is:
“… the Unity Labour Party [ULP] has accomplished a veritable miracle by turning a long-held dream of a hopeful people into a reality….The AIA … is also a metaphor, a symbol, an alive testament to what a determined people, properly led … can achieve (2017 Budget address).
Highlighting this “veritable miracle,” a sacrilegious claim if there ever was one, have been pronouncements by various government officials praising all its virtues except the only important one: attracting thousands of new foreign tourists to the mainland who would not have visited if they had to transit through Barbados of Trinidad.
This will be the topic of my next essay.
This is the 71st in a series of essays on the AIA folly. My other AIA essays are here.
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 opinions presented in this content belong to the author and may not necessarily reflect the perspectives or editorial stance of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].