Amid fears about lower than expected world economic growth, the best travel news for 2015 turned out to be that it was a record-breaking year for global tourist visits. “International tourism grew by 4.4 percent last year to a record 1.184 billion as calculated by overnight visitors to international destinations, 50 million more than in 2014, and the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth, UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reporte
There was even better news for our region:
“For the first time ever since the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) began keeping records, the Caribbean outperformed every major tourism region
in the world in setting new arrival and spending records in 2015, while exceeding expectations…. International tourist trips to the region grew by seven per cent to 28.7 million visits, much higher than the projected four to five per cent growth.”
The data for individual countries highlight this growth.
The most impressive figures come from Cuba
, which saw over 3.5 million foreigners visit the island nation in 2015, a 17.3 percent increase in one year. Canada remained the main source of visitors, with 1.3 million holiday guests, but the fastest growing market was the United States, with 161,000 visitors, for a 76.6 percent growth, following the easing of restrictions by the Obama administration.
Tourist visits to Cuba are expected to explode over the next few years with the resumption of direct flights from the United States
and the construction of scores of new hotels and resorts. If the same proportion of Americans as Canadians eventually travel there, this could result in over 10 million more annual visitors -- many diverted from traditional destinations like The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, as well as little known places like St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) -- as new airlines jockey for permission to land, including five from the United States
, which has recently lifted the boycott on direct aircraft travel to this once pariah state.
This is supported by intense interest among major hotel brands
eager to cash in on the burst in tourist interest as relations between the United States and Cuba quickly return to normal.
The 12-mile long Varadero Beach, Cuba
The Cuban example is a clear and unequivocal indication that tourist expansion is driven by tourist demand, not the other way round.
Another good example is JetBlue airline’s expanded service
from Fort Lauderdale to The Bahamas. Philip Stewart, JetBlue manager of corporate communications, explained the move as follows:
“JetBlue’s Nassau flights are performing quite well, and we have added the additional two daily departures to meet growing demand.”
Most other Caribbean islands saw their tourism numbers increase by 3-10 percent in 2015
So where does this leave SVG which is said to be working hard to tap into the fast growing global tourism market despite the country’s go-slow building of an international airport at Argyle?
At the bottom of the pack
, as usual, with the exception of yacht visitors
, which have showed steady gains since 2011
*not available; **based on a 0.8 percent overall visitor arrival increase from 2014, as reported by the Chief Operations Officer of the SVG Tourism Authority in the Friday, March 18, 2016, The Vincentian newspaper, p. 6. (All other figures are from official records.)
What these figures reveal is that with the exception of yachters (records for which I found only going back to 2009), tourist visits to SVG have been stagnant or in decline for several years.
Of the 309,934 yacht passengers whose port of entry between 2009 and the end of 2015 was SVG, 90 percent landed in the Grenadines. There is good reason for this: our enchanting keys are a renowned region for sailing, mooring, docking, snorkeling, bar-hopping, dining, and a host of beach activities.
While yacht visitors have increased, cruise ship disembarkations peaked in 2009 and have gone down ever since. The 82,079 passengers who visited SVG in 2015 represent a 21 percent drop below the 10-year 104,430 average annual arrival level.
Though this trend is worrying
it is not an economic catastrophe: though more than double the number of cruise ship passengers than yacht visitors disembarked between 2009 and 2016, their relative economic impact was inconsequential compared to the millions spent by yachters on water taxis, fuel, meals, alcohol, groceries, other provisions, onshore recreational activities, boat equipment and repairs, anchorage and docking fees, and overnight stays.
This is because all of the basic and recreational needs of cruise-ship passengers, save most alcoholic beverages, are met by their pre-paid cruise package and by onboard duty-free shopping and other extras like specialized dining. Likewise, most ship stores are purchased and loaded at the port of embarkation in the United States. While many passengers take onshore tours which contribute to our tourism revenue, most of their non pre-paid spending occurs onboard or at duty-free havens like St Martin.
As for stay-over airline passengers, the 10-year 2006-2015 annual average number of flyers landing here – 77,386 – was 3.3 percent above the 74,846 number who arrived in 2015.
What do these figures mean? According to Faylene King, chief operations officer for the SVG Tourism Authority, the 0.8 percent increase in 2015 overall visitors from the years before caused tourism officials to be “… extremely excited about the spike in visitor arrivals…” (The Vincentian
newspaper, Friday, March 18, 2016, p. 6).
From global and regional perspectives, which saw increases of 4.4 percent and seven percent, respectively, in international tourist numbers, Ms King’s “spike” – a word she should be taught means a “sharp increase” -- is very disappointing indeed, especially since the 2015 “spike” levels are still 23 percent below the 2009 levels.
This “spike” is all the more disappointing given that over half of the 74,846 people who landed in SVG in 2015 were not foreign tourists at all. Rather, as in previous years, they were local business people returning home, students coming back after studying overseas, retirees eager to spend their twilight years in their homeland, and overseas Vincentians home on holiday or to attend to family affairs, including the death of a loved one.
As inconvenient as many claim the existing in-transit connections via Barbados or elsewhere may be, few such Vincentians have ever been deterred from travelling back and forth by the absence of an international airport. Conversely, there is no evidence that many more Vincentians will be enticed to come home or travel abroad just because of the presence of a brand new airport. More important, even an annual tripling of foreign tourists – as unrealistic as it may be, especially given the absence of new hotel and resort development -- would only raise their numbers to around 100,000 per annum, a figure whose yearly spin-off tax revenue and other benefits would never come close to matching the combined annual airport loan interest and debt repayments plus huge anticipated annual servicing costs.
So what do all these figures really say about our place in the world of travel?
First, these figures show that even when our tourism numbers increase, we keep falling further and further behind most other visitor-friendly countries.
Second, they suggest that the tiny Grenadines, rather than the mainland, are the heart and soul of our tourism industry. If this were not so, then far more than 10 percent of SVG yachters would be visiting the mainland every year.
Third, that our cruise ship numbers are very low by Caribbean standards and have been declining in recent years does not bode well for the success of Argyle International Airport (AIA) when it is finally ready to receive passengers two or more years from now (an assessment based on my visit to the construction site on Sunday, March 13, which showed how much work remains to be done and how little has been accomplished since my visit at this time last year). This is because, judging from other Caribbean countries
, cruise ship passenger numbers are a good proxy for potential AIA numbers: with few exceptions, the countries with large and growing cruise ship visitors also have large and growing airplane visitors.
The unfinished AIA as of Sunday, March 13, 2016
The reason we have so few cruise ship visitors compared to our neighbours and why most stop-over airline passengers
are our own people lies plainly in sight: mainland SVG has few well developed and professionally maintained hospitality facilities and tourist attractions compared to our Caribbean .
But our most serious tourist weakness – and one over which we have no control – is the absence of large swaths of white sand beaches on St Vincent island, a shortcoming most yachters also recognize as they bypass the mainland on their way to the Grenadines.
The importance of large, well manicured white sand beaches and allied tourism attractions cannot be overestimated, as the above photo from Varadero, Cuba – a place that has attracted international tourists since the 1870s and now hosts a million annual visitors -- suggests.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words but personal testimonies are even better. A recent study by the Saint Lucia Tourist Board
showed that Canadian visitors are eager to hit the beach as soon as they land, with almost 40 percent of passengers packing their bathing suit in their carry-on just in case their stowed luggage doesn't arrive with them. The survey also indicated that 59 percent of these Canadian have carried out research on tours, adventures, and activities they can do on their trip.
"Each year we see thousands of Canadians escape the cold winter climate to bask in the warm Caribbean sun," said Louis Lewis, director of tourism for the Saint Lucia Tourist Board. "We're thrilled that Canadians are ready to dive right into everything Saint Lucia has to offer, right from the moment they land.”
Those who wonder what kind of studies our own director of tourism, Glen Beache, has been carrying out to increase SVG’s dismal vacationer numbers may be heartened to know that he is studying hard to attract big name hotels to the mainland:
“Travel Agent [an online travel industry site] sat down with Glen Beache [on June 1, 2015], CEO of St Vincent and The Grenadines Tourism Authority, who told us Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
could be one of three new hotels to break ground this year in the destination [at Mt. Wynne/Peter’s Hope]. This would be St Vincent and the Grenadines' first Four Seasons hotel…. Although nothing has been signed yet, Beache told us the tourism authority is looking to add such brands as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Hyatt Hotels Corporation and Marriott International.”
Before he begins “looking to add such brands as” five-star Four Seasons, Beache needs to learn that the company has not built any property of its own from scratch for decades. This is because:
“In 1974, cost overruns at a Vancouver [Canada] property nearly led the company into bankruptcy. As a result, the company began shifting to its current, management-only business model, eliminating costs associated with buying land and buildings.
does not own most of its properties; it operates them on behalf of real estate owners and developers. The contracts between Four Seasons and property owners typically permit the company to participate in the design of the property and run it with nearly total control over every aspect of the operation.”
Beache could not possibly negotiate with Four Seasons, especially at an early stage of development, simply because the company does not negotiate directly with governments to buy or lease land on which to build hotels and resorts. (Given its discerning track record, that Four Seasons would ever advise one of its developer clients to build a hotel/resort complex on an isolated and gritty black-sand beach on our Leeward coast seems highly unlikely.)
That Beache is so unfamiliar with such elementary facts about arguably the most prestigious hotel and resort operator in the world speaks volumes not only to his competence as CEO of the SVG Tourism Authority but to our overall ability to compete in the cutthroat international hospitality industry.
As for Marriott International, it recently announced that it plans to open 60 new hotels in the Caribbean and Latin America
. Not one of these is earmarked for SVG. (If Beache has even been in contact with Marriott, a chain with more than 4,000 properties in over 80 countries and territories around the world, they have clearly said thanks, but no thanks.)
As for the possible interest of other international hotel chains, it has just been announced on March 21 that:
“Starwood Hotels and Resorts
on Saturday signed three new hotel deals in Cuba, marking the first US-based hospitality company to enter the market in nearly 60 years.”
One of the world's largest hotel companies, Starwood owns, operates, franchises and manages over 1,200 hotels, resorts, spas, residences, and vacation ownership properties under its 11 owned brands, including prestigious Westin, Sheraton, and St Regis.
Meanwhile not a single international hotel chain, prestigious or otherwise, has signed a deal to construct as much as a mauby shop in SVG.
Caribbean tourism is now a mature and well established industry. Our holiday visitor numbers and the interest of global hotel developers are precisely what they should be based on the appeal and potential of our mainland compared to other destinations, the environmental limitations on expansion in the tiny and fragile Grenadines, and the increasingly sophisticated and upmarket nature of the Caribbean hospitality industry.
No new international airport at Argyle would ever change these facts.
This is the 25th in a series of essays on the folly of the proposed Argyle International Airport.
My other AIA pieces 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
Lessons from Trinidad and Tobago for Argyle International Airport
The dark side of tourism: Lessons for Argyle Airport
Why Argyle won't fly: Lessons from Dominica
Ken Boyea and the Phantom City at Arnos Vale
Airport envy Vincie-style
Fully realising our country's tourism potential
Airport without a cause
The unnatural place for an international airport
The Potemkin Folly at Argyle
False patriotism and deceitful promises at Argyle
Airport politics and betrayal Vincie-style
Phony airport completion election promises, Vincie-style
Is Argyle International Airport really a ‘huge game-changer for us’?
Has the cat got your tongue, prime minister?
More proof that Argyle won't fly
Our very own Vincentian cargo cult at Argyle
The missing Argyle Airport feasibility studies
The world's four most amazing abandoned airports
Farming, fishing, and foolish talk about Argyle International Airport
Argyle Airport amateur hour