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Letter: Lessons from Trinidad and Tobago for Argyle International Airport
Published on February 24, 2015 Email To Friend    Print Version

Dear Sir:

St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) is in some ways a miniature version of the twin-island state of Trinidad and Tobago (T/T) even though the latter nation is much larger in area (5,128 square kilometres) and population (1.4 million people) than SVG (389 square kilometres and 110,000 people). T/T is also much wealthier and much more industrialized, largely due to its profitable gas and oil industries, strong manufacturing sector, and robust commercial and financial enterprises. Agriculture and tourism are also important, with most of the growth in the latter occurring in Tobago which is also a favoured holiday destination for thousands of mainland residents.

The heart of the T/T economy beats strongest on the mainland, resulting in the removal there over the years of thousands of Tobagonians looking for a better way of life. The strength of industry and commerce on the mainland also has made T/T a magnet for legal and illegal workers from all over the Caribbean and elsewhere. Together with the large resident population (over ten times that of SVG) and huge international migrant population -- over 400,000 T/T nationals are living in United States alone; hundreds of thousands more live and work in other countries -- this has made T/T among the most demographically dynamic countries in the Caribbean.

All these economic and population features have more than justified the presence of a newly-renovated international airport at Piarco, which annually receives over 2.5 million passengers. That Piarco International Airport was built over eight decades ago underscores the fact that all the international airports that have ever been needed in the Caribbean have already been built. The second international airport in Scarborough, Tobago, receives about 250,000 a year, perhaps just past the threshold for such an expensive operation.

In keeping with its large size, wealth, and varied geography, the island of Trinidad has some excellent white-sand beaches, other natural and human-made attractions, and associated tourism facilities . But these do not compare with the number and variety of natural wonders and hospitality infrastructure of Tobago. This is why most holiday visits by foreigners are to Tobago rather than to Trinidad.

A beach in Tobago

The most conspicuous indication of this preference for Tobago is its cruise ship traffic. The November 2014-April 2015 cruise ship arrival schedule and passenger capacity numbers are as follows: Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, cruise ship terminal --13 ships with a passenger capacity of 12,063; Scarborough, Tobago, cruise ship terminal: 43 ships with a passenger capacity of 55,264.

So the relatively tiny island of Tobago (16 times smaller than the mainland in area with one-twenty-fifth of the nation's residents) attracts over three times more cruise ships with over four times the passenger capacity.

Unfortunately, comparable breakdown figures for recent airline flights and passengers arriving in T/T could not be found. Based on the cruise ship numbers, the small Tobago population, and the limited potential for much business or commercial traffic there, it can safely be assumed that at least 200,000 of the 250,000 airline passengers arriving in Tobago are international and mainland tourists. Conversely, given the large resident and overseas population of prosperous mainland Trinidadians, the comparatively low mainland cruise-ship traffic, the small contribution of tourism to the overall T/T economy (eight percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2013 vs. nearly 40 percent for, say, St Lucia in 2013), and the big island's well developed industrial and commercial base, which encourages a high rate of international business travel, it is not unreasonable to surmise that of the 2.5 million annual mainland airline passengers no more than 10 percent -- and probably far fewer -- are foreign tourists.

What are the implications of all these figures for Argyle International Airport (AIA) in St Vincent?

First, this comparison between T/T and SVG is based on the premise that despite the differences between the two nation-states, Tobago is to Trinidad as the Grenadines are to St Vincent island, as far as tourist resources, numbers, and development are concerned.

Second, even though Tobago's international airport does not attract lots of traffic, the nation of T/T as a whole can well support any net losses to the overall economy the airport might incur. After all, T/T is the third richest country in the Americas, following the United States and Canada. Conversely, a small, poor country like SVG will be ruined by a white elephant at Argyle.

Third, has the type of comparative analysis presented here and elsewhere in this series of essays even been done as part of a comprehensive study of the feasibility of constructing an international airport at Argyle? If the answer is no, as it appears to be, the rhetorical question is "why not"?

Fourth, if Tobago -- the tourism equivalent of the Grenadines, though on a much larger scale -- receives "only" 200,000 foreign holiday visitors arriving by air every year, given its more developed tourist product, and if St Lucia -- with its mature and attractive tourism offerings receives "only" 300,000 air travellers a year, many of them citizens of the country returning home for a visit -- how many foreign tourists can AIA expect to welcome?

No one knows the answer to this question. Indeed, it can be safely assumed that no member of the ruling regime wants this question seriously analysed because the numbers would never support the attempted construction of AIA.

Mainland SVG is one of the least visited and least known places on earth. Small size and no natural resources, except those derived from the soil and sea, are two reasons for this. But these are not the only reasons or even the most important reasons. Many people have heard of tiny places like Bermuda, St Maarten, Mustique, and Monaco despite their absence of exportable products. The plain fact is that St Vincent island doesn't have anything that the outside world might need or want, save one: the tens of thousands of people who have left here since the glorious abolition of slavery in 1838 to seek a living, perhaps even a fortune, in lands where life was better, brighter, and easier.

With so little to keep our native sons and daughters home, why would we expect tens of thousands of visitors with no attachment to our people, culture, or country to flock to our mainland to spend their hard-earned money? It certainly can't be because we have so much more to offer them by way of holiday pleasures or recreational activities than other places. It certainly can't be because we are ensuring that our existing tourist resources are well maintained. One of our premier tourist sites, the Falls of Baleine, is still off limits 14 months after it was damaged during the December 2013 torrential rain.

Indeed, we have precious little to give our own people when it comes to jollification. A second-rate out-of-season carnival, an inauthentic nine-mornings bacchanal, unkempt beaches, laughable sports and recreational facilities, neglected botanical gardens, decaying Fort Charlotte, and dull and scruffy Kingstown, the mainland offers no good leisure activities for its own residents -- unless getting drunk at one of our countless ramshackle rum shops is your definition of a good leisure activity. There is another reason besides hopeless abandon that make our men-folk drink so much: mind-numbing boredom.

And how can we expect tourists to flock here in large numbers when so many of our own people, especially girls, women, and the elderly are reluctant to venture out alone after dark for fear of being robbed, beaten, raped, chopped up, or run down?

The tiny imported white sand beach at Buccament Bay Resort

Likewise, how can we expect hoards of people to fly at great expense to an island with only one tiny, imported white-sand beach at Buccament Bay?

If other far more desirable leeward seaside areas -- Mt Wynne Bay, Peter's Hope Bay, Cumberland Bay, and Chateaubelair Bay -- were actually suitable for international hotel development, they would have been snapped up long ago by eager hotel chains or other investors in the same way their white-sand counterparts were long developed all over the Caribbean. The simple fact is that no reputable venture capitalist could ever be hoodwinked by the government tourism reference to our "exotic and therapeutic volcanic sand beaches". Nor would covering these beaches with tons of imported white sand fool any potential tourists: you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.



This is the fifth in a series of ten essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport. The first four may be found at:

Get ready for a November election in St Vincent and the Grenadines! But which November?
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from Canada's Montreal-Mirabel International Airport
Lessons for Argyle International Airport from the cruise ship industry
Lessons from Target Canada for Argyle International Airport in St Vincent


C. ben-David
Reads: 11260

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Peter Binose:

David another award winning piece by you. Truthful and factual with all the required research for such a flowing piece.

I must say how much I look forward to what you write and congratulate you on this one as well.

Peter Binose

Vinci Vin:

C. ben: Ditto Peter's comments. These are very informative and superbly argued pieces. While it is important to point out the mistakes made with the decision to invest in the AIA, I am looking forward to read your ideas for remediating the challenges you so eloquently highlight. In other words, what can we do to render this badly executed and managed project at least minimally beneficial to the SVG economy and people?

This might be a head-scrathing problem to which there are not many positive answers. It is made more difficult because of the antagonistic climate facing private enterprise in SVG. However, it is a challenge that we must face and act to solve.

You are doing a stellar job pointing out the short-comings. And that should make it easier for us to employ our collective intellect to develop some solutions for our national good.

Thanks again.


C. ben-David:

I have been scratching my head on that one too, Vin, for years now. An airport will never fly (excuse the pun) for sure. Maybe a large regional sports stadium. Hopefully, some future government will get some debt relief for the project. Otherwise, all of us on the rock, rich and poor alike, will be lucky to afford to eat small fish and green banana for years to come.

C. ben-David:

Thank you Peter Binose whoever you are. As they say, the best is yet to come. But you and others will have to be the judge of that.

This project has been such a disaster that criticising it is easy as kiss hand. The hard part is trying to figure out how to clean up the mess! May God have mercy on us and our blessed land.


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