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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
2001      91,862      76,494      70,686    239,042
2002      86,451      70,314      77,622    234,387 +2.1%
2003      84,330      64,964      78,535    227,829    -2.9%
2004      84,227      77,585      86,721    248,533 +10.9%
2005      81,890      69,753      95,504    247,147    -0.6%
2006      93,638    106,474      97,432    297,544 +12%
2007      86,718    144,455      89,637    320,810 +10.8%
2008      43,277    116,709      84,101    244,087 -23.9%
2009      40,859    149,464      75,446    265,769 +10.9%
2010      42,603    110,955      72,478    226,036 -14.5%
2011      41,266      88,924      73,866    204,056    -9.7%
2012      45,246      77,179      74,364    196,789    -3.6%
2013      45,548      80,185      71,725    200,458 +1.8%
2014      46,899      85,170      70,713    202,782 +1%
2015      47,470      82,079      75,381    204,930 +1.1%
2016      47,575      99,542      78,751    225,868 +10.2%
2017      51,351    174,236      75,972    301,559 +33.5%
Total 1,061,210 1,674,482 1,348,934 4,084,626

*Based on data compiled by the SVG Tourism Authority.

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  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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].

24 replies on “Why is Argyle airport not taking off?”

  1. As a retired analysis, I can relate to the time and assessment you have invested into putting your views together and sharing it with us.
    For that I thank you however, I cannot resist my reflection in asking; are you a friend of SVG in hope for a prosperous Island? Well, for those of us patriots and especially those with investments risks on the land, will want nothing but the best I hope; including you C. ben-David.
    On that note I have no doubt that your time can be more productively utilized in putting your expertise to work in volunteering within the areas of your specialities, nonetheless. Will require some humility on both sides of the spectrum, you and the leaders of whatever ministry you can be most valuable.
    In my mind still resonate the words depicted on a lone frame over the main door of Timmy High school in the 60’s: “TOGETHER WE ASPIRE; TOGETHER WE WILL ACHIEVE”

    1. C. ben-David says:

      My only friend is the truth and the truth is that SVG will never be a prosperous country, unless radical economic policies, that no government would ever have the courage to enact, are introduced. What these radical ideas are can be found among many small and prosperous countries around the world that any retired analyst could quickly discover.

      1. Okay folks; let’s welcome C. ben-David’s ‘TRUTH’ to a prosperous SVG. He has the remedy and COURAGE to enact ‘radical economic policies’. Move along sir…Lead! U KNOW IT ALL >>>> go, Do It !!!

      2. C. ben-David says:

        I have neither the power, nor privilege, nor immoral character to fool our people by telling them that I could lead them to the illusive land of milk and honey.

  2. Rafael Stefania says:

    I wonder if the average person on SVG can understand all this textbook talk here. You guys sound like proper Londoners. I would like to hear a genuine SVG-er speak from their heart. like for example: brother Bob.

  3. When a self proclaimed university lecturer who thinks he has all the answers publishes his articles he’d better double check his information before putting it out there. Even a primary schooler can see the % change data is wrong. The very first line goes from 239,042 in 2001 to 234,387 in 2002; an obvious decrease of 1.95%; (234,387-239,042)/239,042 x 100. Don’ t know how this genius came up with a 2% increase. Also 2005 to 2006 there is an increase of 20.39% not 12%.
    Guess this Trump University Lecturer a’int all the bright.

      1. C. ben-David says:

        I plead guilty to a couple of trivial computational errors — the second line percentage should have been a “-” not a “+” . And, yes, the change from 2005 to 2006 was 20.4 percent, not 12 percent. At least I posted the raw data so people like you could determine whether I was cooking the books.

        But from your skewed, biased, and illogical perspective, these minor errors necessarily negate everything else I have written.

        Unfortunately our “overworked” 31-person Tourism Authority of which three are statisticians failed to provide any of these percentages (even though they are easily and accurately available through the EXCEL spreadsheet programme they employ to analyze this data) which forced me to do these calculations myself.

        I promise to redo them more carefully for a future essay.

  4. Lucian-Aviation-Patriot says:

    Who said that with a new airport, aircrafts will just come flowing in: that’s not how its done. I am from St Lucia and when the Hewannora International Airport was opened it was easier for it to attract Airlines but now we need to understand that this era is different.
    SVG needed an airway infrastructure and now it has been done, developments will have reason to commence followed by Airlift to supplement.

    1. C. ben-David says:

      “Developments will have reason to commence” not because of “airway infrastructure” but because of pre-existing resources that are already being tapped or could potentially be tapped but would actually begin or would really take off with more airlift.

      Please tell us what are these pre-existing resources on the mainland that “developments will have reasons to commence.”

    2. Indeed very much true.. . If they smart they will start some businesses to get the tourist and visitors money lol

  5. I was at AIA yesterday afternoon to drop a neighbour off for a LIAT flight and couldn’t help noticing that nearly all the people lined up at the Air Canada desk were our very own people going to Toronto. Same for those wqiting in line inside to be processed through immigration.

    This airport was mainly built to attract thousands of new foreign tourists, not to make life easier for our own people who have never been reluctant to transit through Barbados even if they sometimes complained about it.

    Remember also that many of those mainly Vincentians and a few tourists flying to Toronto do not live there but have to take another plane to their final destination, often having to overnight in Toronto to do so. Talk about inconvenience!

    Having to spend couple of hours in the comfortable, spacious, elegant and multi-service Grantley Adams airport in Barbados has never stopped more than a handful of local people or international tourists from travelling to SVG.

    Building AIA has been a huge waste of money and a huge hoax perpetuated on our doltish Vincie people.

  6. C. ben-David says:

    I have now corrected the errors in my computation of percentages in Table 1 above and post these below. Again, none of these errors impacted any other facts or interpretations in the essay. Thanks to those who pointed out these errors. Please keep up the good work!

    Table 1. SVG Visitor Arrivals, 2001-2017*

    Year Total Percentage Change

    2001 239,042 —
    2002 234,387 -2.0 percent
    2003 227,829 -2.8 percent
    2004 248,533 +9.1 percent
    2005 247,147 -0.6 percent
    2006 297,544 +20.4 percent
    2007 320,810 +7.8 percent
    2008 244,087 -23.9 percent
    2009 265,769 +8.9 percent
    2010 226,036 -15.0 percent
    2011 204,056 -9.7 percent
    2012 196,789 -3.6 percent
    2013 200,458 +1.9 percent
    2014 202,782 +1.2 percent
    2015 204,930 +1.1 percent
    2016 225,868 +10.2 percent
    2017 301,559 +33.5 percent
    Total 4,084,626

    *Based on data compiled by the SVG Tourism Authority.

  7. I have to agree with C Ben on this one as I have said the same before but sans the statistical data as commonsense alone brought the same conclusion. Sir James had it right when he first proposed an extension to the Arnos Vale airport.

    1. C. ben-David says:

      It is regrettable that a lot of ignorant posters are blaming the previous NDP government for not having built an international airport on the mainland. What they are ignorant of is that all governments going back to the Milton Cato Labour Party government commissioned impartial reports by outside consultants who, one after the other, concluded that there would be no net benefit from doing so — that is, the costs of building and servicng the airport would far outway any spin-off economic effects on tourism and other sectors.

      Ralph Gonsalves ignored all this advise and went ahead anyway. The negative results can be seen every day the airport is operating.

      Still, I share your sentiment about Arnos Vale though the $EC 250 million or so cost of extending the runway into a very deep sea combined with the severe wind issues there and the need to totally renovate and expand the terminal might also not have seen a net benefit unless the extension had been short enough to accommodate short-landing and takeoff planes carrying less than 200 people.

      Still, this is far more passengers than is being carried by the nonstop international flights now landing at AIA.

  8. Blessings on AIA, continue to grow from strength to strength. Countless hours, 72 essays across various media houses, no headway. That’s why I conclude 1% approval rating.

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