Argyle International Airport. (iWN photo)

By C. ben-David

With mid-year upon us, prospects of additional nonstop flights to Argyle International Airport (AIA) on the mainland of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) are unlikely. This makes it possible to roughly estimate how many stopover visitors, especially the critical cohort of those flying without interruption from North America, will land on the mainland of SVG in the new airport’s first full calendar year of operation.

What we know about visitor arrivals since AIA began operation on Feb. 14, 2017 also allows an estimation of how many of this year’s visitors will be bona fide foreign tourists as opposed to diasporic Vincentians.

Table 1. Estimates of 2018 Stayover Nonstop North American Arrivals at AIA

Airline Departure Flights Capacity Flyers Load factor Occupied seats
Air Canada Toronto 28* 136 3,808 90 per cent  3,427
Sunwing Toronto 15** 136 2,040 75 per cent  1,530
Caribbean Airlines New York 50*** 154 7,770 75 per cent  5,775
American Airlines Miami  2**** 128   256 90 per cent   230
    95       10,962

*Flights from Jan. 4 to April 12 and Oct. 26 to Dec. 26

**Flights from April 25 to Aug. 29

*** Flights from March 14 to Dec. 26

****Flights from Dec. 22 to Dec. 29

The main assumptions informing Table 1 are that: (1) the 28 Air Canada flights (and by implication the two American Airlines flights) will be flying at the same 90 per cent capacity as their 2017 predecessors and (2) the average load of the Sunwing and Caribbean Airlines flights will be no more than 75 per cent because most will occur outside the peak tourist high season, November-April.

These assumptions result in the addition of 10,962 nonstop passengers from Toronto, New York, and Miami. This would add 14 per cent more visitors, at first glance a good figure for an airport that many say is still in its infancy.

A further assumption, one not contained in Table 1, is that the 2018 total stopover numbers, which saw a disappointing decline of 3.5 per cent from the year before, would return to their 2017 number (78,751).

The 10,962 number cannot be taken on its superficial appearance alone but must be carefully deconstructed as follows.

It is likely that at least 80 per cent these 10,962 visitors would be Vincentian nationals living abroad. This conjecture is based on evidence in an earlier essay, observations on my own flights, personal visits to the airport to examine the composition of deplaning passengers, reports from other Vincentians I have asked to do informal onboard head counts, and the admission by Cecil McKie, SVG’s Minister of Tourism, that, “… most of the visitors from Canada would have been returning Vincentians.”

This assumption reduces the number of foreign tourists to around 2,200 people.

From the 2017 data and reports from taxi drivers and frequent flyers I have spoken to, it is also reasonable to assume that about two-thirds of these estimated 2,200 visitors would be in-transit to the Grenadines by commuter plane from Argyle or by ferry boat from Kingstown, the latter saving them hundreds of dollars over flying to the Grenadines from Barbados, as most visitors did in the past.

For example, a roundtrip charter flight from Barbados to Bequia costs US$420 (EC$1,121). A roundtrip ferry from Kingstown to Bequia is 25 times cheaper at US$17 (EC$45). While a return charter flight from Argyle to Bequia costs only US$74 (EC$198) it requires an expensive and inconvenient overnight stop on the mainland.

In short, almost all the non-Vincentian visitors represented in Table 1 would be persons who are using AIA as a convenient, money-saving gateway to the Grenadines. Their only mainland economic contribution would be food and other purchases at the airport, taxi fares to and from AIA, and round-trip boat fares to the Grenadines.

This further shrinks the mainland foreign tourist number to about 748 people arriving on these 95 nonstop flights, or an average of eight travelers per flight.

This figure, as low as it is, surely contains visitors who would have still flown to the mainland on holiday despite having to transit to our mainland through some large Caribbean gateway after having to first transit by air from a locale far from the three main North American hubs — New York, Miami, and Toronto — thereby entailing even more so-called inconvenience, all contrary to the central premise underlying the construction of AIA, as enunciated by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves.

I emphasize this because the partially deconstructed arrival number ignores the makeup of the nearly 70,000 visitors who are expected to reach the mainland this year by transiting through Barbados, Trinidad, or elsewhere on aircraft carrying between seven and 72 passengers. Discounting the Vincentian component of this cohort — nearly all of whom will arrive via LIAT — and given what I have already written about the topic, around 6,000 of these visitors would be bona fide tourists holidaying in some public accommodation on the mainland. If I am correct, then about eight times more foreign tourists will reach the mainland through “inconvenient” Caribbean gateways than the 748 or so who will reach here on nonstop North American flights.

Our old faithful LIAT continues to easily meet our flying needs.(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In sum, a reasonable prediction of our 2018 foreign tourists arriving on these 95 flights is less than one per cent of stopover visitors. If so, this tiny cohort could readily be lodged by a mainland hotel stock that has an annual occupancy level of only 30 per cent, a figure based on our national accommodation levels.

Given these rock bottom additional tourist numbers and our existing hotel occupancy rate, why is a government with such a poor record of improving existing tourist attractions and amenities or developing new ones relentlessly enticing foreign investors to construct new resorts and hotels while simultaneously hectoring our local hotel owners to expand their chronically underused facilities?

Save for the highly unlikely prospect of converting Big Bay, Mt. Wynne, and Cumberland Bay on the North Leeward coast into massive holiday resorts that would magically divert thousands of visitors from other truly magical places in the world, there is no reason to expect that our disappointing mainland foreign visitor levels, rooted in our meagre and shabby tourist attractions, will ever show a dramatic and value-adding improvement.

Meanwhile, the AIA debts will need to be serviced, the airport will have to be maintained, and the bloated labour force will insist on being paid. Yes, AIA is still in its infancy, as many keep claiming, but like the malnourished offspring of an impoverished and emaciated mother it exhibits all the symptoms of death by slow and painful starvation.

***

This is the 73rd 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 news.iwitness@gmail.com.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Sunwing 136 on a B738 CAL 154 on the 2 class variant if the same B738 does not compute.

  2. You assume that the same number of diaspora would return with direct flights. Vincentians in the UK tell me they are waiting on direct flights in order to visit their homeland so it seems reasonable to assume higher numbers are a real possibility.
    Having just returned from SVG yesterday (and having contributed 6,000 XCD to the SVG economy) I am all too aware of how painful it is to get to without direct flights, 22 hours from door to door is just painful and a very real disincentive to many.

    • 1. I easily found several flights from three London airports (the only place that might have direct flights to SVG in the future) to Barbados that would allow a LIAT connection to SVG on the same day with no more than 10 hours flying and transiting. Please prove me wrong.

      2. Your position is a minority one: long before the first nonstop transatlantic flights to the Caribbean began in the 1940s, tens of thousands of Vincentians managed to travel to and from the four corners of the world by ship.

      3. There is no evidence to show that there would be a surge in diasporic Vincentians in England returning home if nonstop flights were available, if only because most of the Vincentian-born people who migrated to England between the mid-1950s and late-1960s are either dead, have long returned home to retire, are too ill or elderly to travel, or have no interest in coming home for a visit because most of their family is dead or living overseas or because they few financial resources.

      4. As for their offspring, few have an interest in visiting their ancestoral homeland.

      5. As for North America, the population of diasporic Vincentians is much younger, wealthier, and more mobile which accounts for the flights listed in Table 1.

      Add to this that few white English people would be interested in visiting SVG and you have the reasons why there are no flights from Great Britain.

      • C. ben David,

        If your predictions prove wrong, and Argyle ends up being a massive windfall for SVG in terms of tourist arrivals and economic growth, would you be genuinely happy? or disappointed? I personally hope the former.

        As for the view that i will not bring more business based on the figures you cite alone, please consider that there are intangible factors (such as the internal thinking of prospective travelers, rational or otherwise) that these figures and assumptions cannot capture.

        For my own part, being a Bahamian, I have (with the exception of SVG) only visited those regional countries to which I could fly directly from Nassau (Cuba, Jamaica, TCI) or, alternatively, via Miami. The reason for that is simple: people do NOT like the idea of unnecessary transits, especially where it means hassle. For me the transit through Barbados meant three flights and an overnight stay.

        I am amazed that you can not see that people (in the region and beyond) will OBVIOUSLY travel more to places that involve less flights to get to.

        As for the supposed structural limitations of the destination, you have good points. But it is clear that what is needed is a massive expansion of hotel room inventory in anticipation of the increased airlift.

  3. C. ben-David,

    There is a time to give it up. One more essay from you on the government’s idiocy on building AIA is going to make me puke and raise my anxiety level from 0 to 4 (10 being the highest). LOL.

    All and sundry know that AIA as a project was not properly implemented or executed. However, it is here to stay. It is time that you present ideas that will make it a resounding success rather than providing damning reviews.

    It is quite evident that you do not believe in humanity, rather you do not believe in the resilience of the people of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. AIA can and will work if the stakeholders collaborate and present an immediate and long term strategy for its operations and its usefulness as a catalyst for change in the various sectors – notably tourism, agriculture, fishing and culture. We also know that the government is politicizing AIA and its fiscal policies are not in sync with the sectors AIA is supposed to transform with the so called “taking off of the economy”

    However, C. ben-David, sir/madam, writing a 74th essay on the folly of AIA is not going to help the situation, rather start with essay #1 on “how to turn around AIA and make it a success”. Anyone can criticize, and it is within your rights to do so. But bear in mind, it is of no use “barking at flying birds” – pun intended.

    C. ben-David, you are providing estimates of visitor arrivals to bolster your argument that AIA is a folly. These numbers do not take future capacity and pricing into consideration. Next year JetBlue may add AIA as a destination. Therefore, seating and pricing will definitely change because of competition, thus throwing your estimates off and into the dust bin. Grenada experienced the same issues. And remember, I do not trust your Math!!

    AIA is NOT a folly! It is just that the government is not working hard enough to enable its linkages and strategic alliances with the other sectors. It is also sad that it is being used as a political instrument.

    • You say, “It is time that you present ideas that will make it a resounding success rather than providing damning reviews.”

      How can I do something like that when I don’t believe that there is anything that would or could make AIA a success, except the highly subsidized (read: high loans and taxes) issues of Vincie convenience and patriotism.

      Why do you want to kill me for my evidence-based beliefs?

  4. C. Ben it really hurts considering the amount of time invested, only to be rejected continuously by the Vincentian public. The truth is, we are weary of your no taste, hug washed, unattractive boring recycled material, AIA/SVG. You are not reaching anywhere, all it does is elevate your BLOOD PRESSURE, that’s all. Regardless of what you say, Vincentians has endorsed this magnificent project.

    Having published (74) essays, critiquing AIA/SVG, one would have thought you had the city locked, we expect you to have a solid base cheering in support of Ben’s glowing work, assessing your work after four years, one can conclude that Ben is a failure. You’ve not gotten off the ground with your work, your message haven’t resonated, therefore, I urged you to go back to the drawing board, assess where you’ve gone wrong and apply corrective measures. As far as I’m concerned, there aren’t any major hiccup at the newly commissioned airport. Compare this to Ben’s feature headline entitled: AIA/SVG? Which one has more support, more likes, major endorsements not just locals, but regionally and internationally. Can we say the same for Ben? According to tourism stakeholders, our current occupancy is 50%, as time goes by we expect this number to rise.

    Let’s not forget, the Buccuma Bay Resort will soon be up and running, as well as ongoing works at Mt Wynne Peter’s Hope hotel project. In the near future the government of SVG will be constructing a 250 room hotel in conjunction with hoteliers. Haters, continue to eat your hearts out. Canadian ‘lemming’ Ben, be careful, you’ll suffer from an enlarged HEART.

  5. A reliable insider in Canada has just now passed on the following information, obtained from a Sunwing flight attendant, about the bi-weekly Sunwing flights from Toronto to Argyle airport on a plane with a capacity of 189 passengera:

    Toronto to SVG – May 9, 2018 = 78
    Toronto to SVG – May 23, 2018 = 50
    SVG to Toronto – May 23, 2018 = 107

    This works out to only 41 percent of seats occupied on these three filghts, which verifies what I have heard elsewhere.

    In Table 1, I used a generous estimate of 75 percent of seats being sold and filled on Sunwing flights which nevertheless still translated into hardly any foreign tourist arriving and departing.

    If the true figure is around 40 percent, we are closer to an economic abyss than even I thought.

    May Almightly God have mercy on the well meaning ignoramuses who bought into the Argyle airport hoax.

    For those on the inside who well knew that the purpose of building an international airport at Argyle was to convince an ignorant electorate to voting for the ULP time and again, may they burn in Hell for an eternity.

  6. David the White Striped Weasel, you have really upset Glen Beache and hurt his feelings. A simple apology will suffice to please the outrigger family to the SVG self appointed royal dynasty. The Beaches want to be considered royal but cannot make the grade, even with a knighthood in the family.

    I suppose David you realise you are in more danger than you have ever been before in SVG, the search and find squad will be hunting you.

  7. You are right Simon, trash cans available in every household, the only place to put waste. The constant rambling would not change anything troubled soul, seek help before it’s too late.

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