Argyle International Airport. (iWN photo)

By C. ben-David

The naysayers, the prophets of doom, and the political opportunists have been proven irrevocably, embarrassingly wrong. Even in its infancy, the AIA [Argyle International Airport] is an unqualified success in laying the foundations for the future of Vincentian tourism” (Budget address, St. Vincent and the Grenadines [SVG], February 5, 2019).

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ONE OF the most remarkable developments in this country’s history has been the construction of the Argyle International Airport…. [which has] … seen the increase of visitors to our country even without new hotels being completed” (Searchlight newspaper editorial, January 22, 2019).

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Now into its third year of operation, AIA has passed from infancy to toddlerhood. Given this transition, it necessary to query whether the facility is even beginning to realise its mainland tourism potential as expressed in the famous Aug. 8, 2005 speech made by the Honourable Prime Minister, Dr. Ralph E. Gonsalves:

Our country’s tourism potential would not be fully realised unless we build an international airport. And tourism is likely to be our main foreign exchange earner for a long time to come.”

So far, none of this potential, fully or otherwise, has been realized. This is because AIA has certainly not “… seen the increase of visitors to our country…” baselessly claimed by the editor of the Searchlight newspaper.

Stopover visitors in 2017, the year AIA began operation, saw a 3.5 per cent decline from 2016: 78,751 to 75,972. Even with the 4.6 per cent increase in stayover arrivals in 2018, this represents both under a one-half per cent increase since the airport first opened and nearly 20 per cent below the record 97,432 stop-over visitors in 2006, 11 years before the opening of AIA, as Chart 1 below shows. So much also for the veracity of the February 15, 2019 IMF statement that, “Following the opening of the new airport … tourist arrivals have recovered.”

Chart 1. Stopover Arrivals on Mainland SVG, 2001-2019*

*Source for 2001-2017

This decline is rooted in the elementary fact that the overriding function of passenger airports is to facilitate the transport of people from one place to another; by themselves, such facilities rarely trigger a surge in tourist arrivals.

This explains why AIA has attracted only three regularly scheduled international airlines servicing the airport on a limited basis with their smallest long range aircraft: the mainland of SVG, as beautiful as it is, does not have the attractions, particularly miles of pristine white sand beaches fronting shallow aquamarine waters, to make it a popular or appealing mass tourism destination, features of nature that would never change.

It also explains why SVG has been unable to attract flights from England: situated nearly double the distance from SVG than Toronto — 6,885 km vs. 3,824 km — such flights would require much larger aircraft that would end up flying half full given the mainland’s limited tourism appeal.

By way of contrast, Virgin Atlantic has 11 weekly flights from England to the popular destination of Barbados on an Airbus A330 aircraft carrying 266 passengers.

By way of further contrast, the largest planes flying to SVG, Caribbean Airlines’ Boeing 737 aircraft which carry a maximum of 154 passengers, have arrived two-thirds full on average thereby requiring subsidies to the airline of over $US 1,000,000.

Additional data based on the 3,105 LIAT, Air Canada, Caribbean Airlines, and American Airlines flights expected to land at AIA in 2019 carrying a projected 83,440 stopover visitors, my optimist five per cent higher projection than 2018, all support these assertions.

Additional optimistic assumptions suggest that less than 2,000 of these 83,440 guests would be non-LIAT mainland tourists, no more than half of whom would have declined to holiday on St. Vincent Island save for the alleged “convenience” of flying non-stop from Toronto, New York, or Miami. This translates into a pitiful 1.2 per cent of the 83,400 visitors in Chart 1.

Glen Beache, CEO of the SVG Tourism Authority, has a public duty to challenge these figures, as inflated as they are, if he again believes they are incorrect, as he opined about those in a similar opinion piece last year, by supplying the correct ones. If he does so, I will post in detail the supporting evidence for these two figures. Otherwise, readers may assume that silence means assent.

If my numbers are correct, how can the ruling Unity Labour Party possibly claim that, “The tourism sector is booming…” (The Vincentian newspaper, January 25, 2019, p. 10)?

Clearly, our painfully low tourist numbers, the lowest for the English-speaking Caribbean on a per capita basis save for volcano ravished Montserrat, prove that AIA was built for reasons other than attracting international holidayers to our mainland, namely to cure our “airport envy anxiety disorder” (see also “Shifting the goalposts at Argyle airport”) while ensuring Unity Labour Party victory in the last three national elections.

Clearly also, as this year’s peak tourist season approaches its end in April, Cecil McKie’s prediction of a tripling of tourist and other visitors  by this date – 299 per cent below the actual expected level — has proven to be nonsensical political propaganda.

Likewise for the fake news claim in a January 4, 2019 Searchlight newspaper editorial that:

It is now established beyond a doubt that our long travails in building Argyle International Airport were worth it. We now have speedy and strong connections between St Vincent and North America, our principal source of tourists” (emphasis added).

Beyond a doubt, “speedy” and “strong” are not the same thing. As my supplementary data show, of mainland tourist and other visitors, 87.5 per cent would continue to arrive from Barbados, St. Lucia, and Trinidad in 2019 “slowly” and “weakly” on 2,920 flights, representing 94 per cent of all the 3,105 flights mentioned above, using our old workhorse LIAT. If SVG Air, Mustique Airways, and other carriers were factored in this figure would approach 90 per cent.

All these projected numbers are contrary to the convenience-enhancing central premise underlying the construction of AIA given by Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and the deceptive message in his 2018 Christmas greeting that:

“… [W]e are happy to see so many visitors and nationals overseas coming direct to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, by air, from Toronto, New York, and Miami through the international airport at Argyle” (emphasis added).

A truer message is that AIA should be re-christened “LIAT Regional Airport” given that old faithful’s continued dominance of our tiny and sluggish travel market. In the battle between David and Goliath in the airline wars, David is still reigning champion for “so many visitors”.

Sometimes the naysayers and prophets of doom are unashamedly correct.

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This is the 77th 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.

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