By Adrian Loveridge
Five years later than planned, the Argyle International Airport in nearby St Vincent will officially open on 14th February 2017, at a quoted cost of EC$700 million (roughly US$260 million), including ‘in-kind contributions’.
Adrian Loveridge has spent 46 years in the tourism industry across 67 countries, as a travel agent, tour director, tour operator and for the last 24 years as a small hotel owner on Barbados. He served as a director of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association, and as chairman of the Marketing Committee. He also served as a director of the Barbados Tourism Authority and is a frequent writer on tourism
According to a radio interview with Glen Beache, former minister of tourism and currently chief executive officer of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority, at least two international flights will touch down on St Valentine’s Day, a chartered Canadian Sunwing Airlines from Toronto bringing nationals and visitors and a Caribbean Airlines flight from New York’s JFK airport.
By anybody’s reckoning it’s an incredibly bold move. The airport will be capable of handling up to 1.4 million passengers each year and, to put that in perspective, a recent Travel Weekly article quoted that SVG “registered close to 62,000 air arrivals in 2014”.
Apparently, discussions have taken place with several major airlines with the front runners likely to be JetBlue from the USA, WestJet from Canada and British Airways from the United Kingdom.
It is always a finite balance between room availability and airlift and, not surprisingly, after the recent closure of their only ‘large’ hotel, Buccament Bay, with all the associated incredibly complex legal implications, a major effort has been made to attract new hotel plant. Mr Beache stated the solar-powered airport “has generated considerable interest among hotel investors and developers. There is a Canadian developer now who has expressed interest in building three branded properties in St Vincent; a three-star, four-star and six-star hotel plus a golf course and a complex of 200 bungalows. If we get a branded hotel property, it will give legitimacy to the destination and helps bring in potential visitors who like to stay at a hotel whose name they recognise.”
Knowing just how long even developments that are able to fast-track all the required planning permissions take, it would be difficult to accept that these proposed projects could make any real difference to attracting airlift in the immediate future.
So what are the options?
The 32 islands, nine of which are uninhabited, which curve south from St Vincent, the largest of the archipelago, offer a very special, largely ‘niche market’ tourism product. Take a straw poll and I would expect that one of its biggest attractions to the people who travel there is that it is largely underdeveloped and unspoiled.
Notably, it is a yachtsman’s dream destination. No island is far from another, predictable winds (at least in the winter), pristine waters, scenic harbours and probably one of the most desirable climates on the planet.
I am of course not privy to any discussions that have taken place with our government, ministry of tourism or Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., but as silly as it may sound to others, I would be talking to the SVG counterparts to explore and implement ways that we could work together and minimise the risk to both destinations by looking at possible triangular routes, where the same plane from major visitor feed cities deplanes at both
Argyle and Grantley Adams (GAIA) airports.
Secondly I would be speaking to the cruise ship operators, especially the ones who operate smaller ships, like Star Clippers, Windstar, Silversea and SeaBourn, who could produce seat capacity volume.
It would be easy to conclude that the opening or Argyle could pose a potential threat to our air arrival numbers, where direct services to SVG could negatively impact, so let’s instead look at it as an opportunity.