A tiny Roraima Airways plane
Self-declared “Captain” Gerald “Gerry” Gouveia is the owner Roraima Airways, a tiny regional charter company flying out of Guyana with five small aircraft totaling 59 seats, with ambitions to make St Vincent Island (SVI) a Caribbean airline hub. To highlight this wish, he says he will use his ties to two other charter airlines – Dynamic International Airways and EasySky – to make an in-transit stop at Argyle International Airport (AIA) from New York and Cuba, respectively, en route to their final stop in Guyana on February 14, 2017, Valentine’s Day, to coincide with the grand opening of AIA.
Mr Gouveia’s sudden and inexplicable interest in doing business in SVI should be a cause for concern, if not alarm:
(1) The Guyanese businessman’s claim that he did no market research to determine whether his plans for a regional hub out of SVI would be financially viable makes no business sense given the careful studies and comparisons established airlines carry out to ascertain whether new routes would be commercially rewarding. Instead, he said he simply followed his “entrepreneurial nose” to SVI, an island he had never visited before his three-day trip to attend the ground breaking of the proposed Pace Developments Inc. hotel and villa project at Peter’s Hope on January 19, 2017, yet another project that should make us nervous.
A lack of grounded familiarity with SVI is hard to reconcile with Gouveia’s proclamation that, “… we have always have had a good relationship with St Vincent, the government of St Vincent”, leaving unspecified the grounds for this relationship except that he was apparently beguiled by discussions in Cuba with our ambassador there, Ellsworth John, and in Guyana, with our garrulous and charismatic prime minister.
(2) Gouveia’s plans to set up a regional hub at AIA is a pie in the sky idea at best. There already is a major regional hub in Barbados that connects us to the rest of the Caribbean and outside world; there are two smaller hubs in St Lucia and Grenada that do the same, and a large hub in nearby Trinidad (283 km or 176 miles away). SVI also serves as a mini-hub for the country’s five airports. Why would we need yet more regional airlines when existing ones fly half empty most of the year?
(3) Even more fanciful is his plan to bring small-scale Cuban traders here to explore shopping opportunities using EasySky, an airline with only three planes, when AIA opens on February 14. What Mr Gouveia needs to learn is that, with some of the highest wholesale and retail prices in the Caribbean and no formal duty-free regime for itinerant peddlers, our goods are uncompetitive, with the same items available elsewhere in the region. The argument that visa restrictions would preclude Cubans from shopping in nearby countries for fear of a flood of refugees would also apply to our country, which has seen its own share of Cuban freedom-seekers trying to gain residence.
(4) More important, is Gouveia’s admission last year
“Guyana is now a haven for them [the 1,000 Cubans who travel weekly via EasySky to buy cheap clothing and other goods in Guyana] …. [T]he only thing is that it is dependent on the bad times in Cuba… The minute Cuba opens up [by a lifting of the America embargo] … it means that will stop”. What would also stop would be shopping visits to SVI.
(5) As for commercial or tourist visitors from his other two Caribbean destinations, Honduras (the home of tiny EasySky) and Guyana, both are have-not nations whose small number of wealthy citizens have never been inclined to travel here on holiday or business.
(6) Although Dynamic Airways may be filling a gap in non-stop travel to Guyana from the United States, it cannot compare to Caribbean Airlines, the region’s largest carrier with 17 aircraft and 1,700 employees, with a Skytrax customer satisfaction rating of 6 stars out of 10 (6/10). By comparison, airlines like Air Canada and WestJet have scores of 5/10. Dynamic Airways, with a mere six ancient aircraft, has a score of 1/10. Even our own beleaguered LIAT has a much higher flyer rating of 4/10 on the Skytrax site.
(7) The third airline that Roraima Airways links with, tiny Insel Air, headquartered in Curacao, also has a pitiful Skytrax customer rating of 1/10. Meanwhile, Roraima Airlines, Mr Gouveia’s private company, is not listed by Skytrax, presumably because of its insignificant size.
(8) There is another important lesson for AIA from Guyana, a nation of 800,000 people working hard to become a popular tourist destination based on its large array of attractions. Even though Guyana now greets 200,000 annual stopover airline holiday visitors -- ten times our number -- the most frequent non-stop flights from North America are via five flights a week using chronically-late Dynamic Airlines and three flights a week using tiny Jamaica Airways, both from New York City. Except for a few other flights out of Miami, most international routings connect through Jamaica, Barbados, or Trinidad, as do all flights from Europe.
This is hardly a good sign for the success of AIA, a facility for which the prime minister and his ULP government have used “…. the limitations of air access … due to the absence of an international airport” as its main public relations selling point since 2005. Even if we increased our numbers to 50,000 a year over the next decade, a farfetched feat if there ever was one but still one-quarter of convenience-challenged Guyana, this would still be insufficient cost-benefit justification for the construction of AIA.
(9) Finally, there is the problem of “white powder” being transported on Gouveia aircraft, an issue extensively reported on Wikileaks
, Propaganda Press
and Kaieteur News
. We already have dozens of supposedly “therapeutic” black sand beaches – a medicinal function claimed by the developers of Black Sands Resorts and Villas that we Vincentians have never heard of -- and lots of plans for medical marijuana – another divisive issue in our deeply fragmented country -- so we don’t need any white powder. It is also worth noting that Guyana ranks 108th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s influential Corruption Perception Index, the third highest in the Caribbean, and much higher than SVG’s thankful rank of only 35. We should just keep it that way.
What this leaves us with are two genuine charter arrivals on Valentine’s Day – Sunwing from Toronto and Caribbean Airlines from New York City. What is still unknown is whether these flights will be returning the same evening full or empty (or something in between) and whether the February 21 flights scheduled to pick up returning Valentine’s Day passengers will arrive full or empty and whether the returning flights an hour later will depart full or empty.
What I do know is that when I phoned G.G. Tours in Toronto at 1:00 p.m. on January 31 to mischievously claim (an established investigative journalism tactic) that I was calling on behalf of a group of 12 possible passengers, I was told that the February 14 Sunwing flight could easily accommodate them, a far cry from the prediction by Glen Beache that the flight would be sold out within an hour.
All these considerations should tell us that we will be scraping the bottom of the Valentine’s Day “Labour love” barrel on February 14 and every day after, no surprise given that the bottom of the barrel has long been our place.
This is the 45th in a series of essays on the folly of having built Argyle International Airport.
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'