The construction of Argyle International Airport (AIA), which began operating on February 14, 2017, was premised on a 2005 assertion made by the prime minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), the Honourable Dr Ralph E. Gonsalves, that “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.”
Realizing “our country’s tourism potential”
assumes that we possess a realizable tourism potential on the mainland (St Vincent Island or SVI) together with an unrealized visitor demand thwarted for decades by the absence of an international airport. I have repeatedly challenged this assumption on many grounds such as pointing out that there are many highly popular Caribbean holiday destinations (and dozens of global locations) lacking a true international airport. These include the Florida Keys, several of the Bahamas Islands, two of the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Anguilla, Ilsa de Vieques, St Barts, most of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and all but one of our Grenadines Islands (see essay numbers 31 and 43 below).
Dr Gonsalves’ assertion may also be challenged by our seesaw tourist numbers over the past 16 years of Unity Labour Party rule whose current visitor figures are well below the average for this period (see Table 1 below), a finding that says the mainland has no inherent potential to generate a surge in tourist demand, the driving force behind hospitality industry infrastructure development across the globe.
This does not deny that international tourism is a huge and growing industry (albeit one with considerable short-term volatility and other intrinsic risks) with a long-term upward trajectory as wealth and income levels grow across the world, presumably the main macroeconomic indicators behind the prime minister’s decision to put what few eggs we have in a shaky tourism basket.
Yes, world and regional tourist numbers again broke records in 2016: global stayover tourist arrivals increased by 3.9 percent compared to the year before; the Caribbean region did even better with its 4.2 percent increase over 2015; and SVG did even better still with an increase of 4.5 percent in stopover visitors from the year before (see Table 1). Although our overall country increase in yacht visitors was flat, this was not true of cruise ship passengers, whose numbers increased by a welcome 10 percent.
Table 1. SVG visitor arrivals by type, 2001-2016
Source: SVG Tourism Authority figures
But a closer look at these figures shows that our year-over-year and long-term performance are nothing to brag about. Nor do they present any reason to believe that the operation of AIA will serve “to fully realize our country’s tourism potential.”
First, the 225,868-visitor number for 2016 is 4.5 percent below the 236,442 average for the 2001-2016 period. It is also 30 percent below the 2007 figure, the highest during this interval.
Second, although the 10 percent increase in cruise ship passengers included a whopping 23 percent increase to the Kingstown terminal from 54,818 in 2015 to 67,508 in 2016, these figures need to be considered within the context of how many of these passengers chose to come ashore (“landed passengers”). Assuming that our proportion of landed passengers was the same 17 percent as Barbados, the only regional country that publishes these figures, yields a total of 11,476 persons who ventured ashore.
Third, the 4.5 percent 2016 increase in stayover visitors who landed by aircraft is still over 800 people short of the 16-year average and 24 percent below the highest arrival number in Table 1.
Fourth, stayover numbers from outside the Caribbean – the home of the international travelers AIA was built to attract – increased by less than one-half of one percent from 54,147 in 2015 to 54,387 in 2016.
Fifth, a comparison of yacht visitors shows that the same 87 percent of yachters anchored in the Grenadines in 2016 as in 2015, again highlighting that the tiny cays are a much more desirable destination than our much larger mainland, which saw the landing of only 6,185 yacht passengers.
Though all three visitor streams reveal much about our tourism potential, the most direct figures pointing to the success or failure of AIA are the stopover arrival numbers. Regrettably, the breakdown figures revealing the exact number of genuine extra-Caribbean international tourists flying to our mainland to spend at least one night, the cohort of travelers AIA was built to capture in growing numbers, is not provided by the SVG Tourism Authority, even though this and other relevant tourism data can easily be compiled from our immigration/customs forms. Still, based on my earlier estimate that 6,500 extra-Caribbean stayover tourists landed at Arnos Vale airport in 2015, the 2016 increase in arrivals would bring this number up to no more than 7,200.
Table 2. Mainland Landed Passengers by Boat and Plane, 2016
Though the two-year snapshot may be twisted to say otherwise, with dismal figures like these in which only 24,861 bona fide tourists landed by boat or plane in 2016 (Table 2), there is no reason to suspect that these figures would substantially increase just because we have a new international airport at Argyle. As for the attraction of a new resort at Mt Wynne/Peter’s Hope to be built by a little-known Canadian developer with no Caribbean hospitality experience, its 275 rooms would barely compensate for the closure of the Buccament Bay resort.
There is lots of support for these assertions in my previous essays. Other recent evidence is provided by Jamaican-headquartered Sandals Resorts International (SRI), the world’s leading all-inclusive holiday chain, with 24 properties in seven Caribbean countries. SRI accepted what was undoubtedly a complimentary trip to assess the Mt Wynne/Peter’s Hope site last year. The company’s decision to “Just Say No” to the generous concessionary grants they must have been offered to build a resort there speaks for itself. So does the fact Sandals was finalizing or implementing expansion of its luxurious offerings among our four main regional rivals -- St Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, and Tobago – at the time of their visit.
We will soon be yearning for the good old days of E. T. Joshua International Airport, a time when our ambitions were realistic, our debts controllable, our cost of living manageable, and our taxes reasonable.
This is the 49th in a series of essays on the AIA folly. My other AIA essays are listed below:
1. Get ready for a November election in St Vincent and the Grenadines! But which November?
2. Lessons for Argyle International Airport from Canada's Montreal-Mirabel International Airport
3. Lessons for Argyle International Airport from the cruise ship industry
4. Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle International Airport in St Vincent
5. Lessons from Trinidad and Tobago for Argyle International 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 Vincie-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 Vincie-style
16. Phony airport completion election promises, Vincie-style
17. Is Argyle International 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. St 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. Did the IMF drink the Comrade's Kool-Aid?
29. Why Qatar? Why St Vincent and the Grenadines?
30. Foolish words about Argyle International Airport
31. 'If I come, you will build it': Lessons from the Maldives for Argyle International Airport
32. City 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 St 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. Why Roraima Airways? Lessons for Argyle airport
46. The print media's take on the opening of Argyle International Airport
47. Our Argyle International Airport 'veritable miracle'
48. The Argyle airport 'poppy show' opening