Letter: More questions and answers about the Argyle airport puzzle

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Dear Sir:

A rendering of Fairmont Saint Lucia, a 120-room luxury hotel with 40 private residential villas on 25 acres of beachfront expected to open in 2019

This is the second last of five essays where I negotiate the cleverly conceived and executed Argyle International Airport (AIA) maze on St Vincent Island (SVI) to determine its true purpose.

Can we find the path from AIA to prosperity?

As I concluded in my last previous essay (see number 61 below), in mathematics, the sciences, and logic, the simpler the explanation that accounts for all the facts, the better. That’s why my axiom that “St Vincent Island has little developmental potential” and its corollary that “The construction of an international airport would not boast our mainland tourism potential (because we have so few tourist attractions there)” better account for the following otherwise inexplicable facts and issues than does the prevailing free-market assumption that “St Vincent has lots of potential” and its ipse dixit corollary proclaimed by the Honourable Prime Minister Dr Ralph E. Gonsalves that “Our country’s [mainland] tourism potential would not be fully realised unless we build an international airport”:

Question: Why have we been able to secure only one, limited-period, weekly Air Canada regularly scheduled nonstop international flight from Toronto to AIA, plus a handful of other short-term Sunwing charter flights from the same city, together totaling an insignificant 24 seasonal return flights between October 22, 2017 and April 12, 2018, after endless negotiations since 2007 with such carriers as Caribbean Airlines, WestJet, American Airlines, British Airways, JetBlue, Delta, Spirit, Virgin Atlantic, Air Berlin, and Copa using the prodigious talents of the highly-paid, university-trained employees at three government agencies: the Tourism Authority, the International Airport Development Company, and Invest SVG?

Answer: International airlines are cutthroat business ventures, as proven by the hundreds of bankruptcies, restructurings, mergers, acquisitions, and birth of new carriers over the past 30 years. No global carrier would service a new and unknown destination without assured profitability. Given our Caribbean rock-bottom Arnos Vale stopover passenger numbers (see essay numbers 33 and 39), the government would have been forced to guarantee upfront payment for a high proportion of unsold seats whose huge potential liabilities would have overshadowed any spin-off tourist sector benefits.

Q: Why, after 27 years of constant solicitation for the sale or lease of 680 acres of Crown land at Peter’s Hope/Mt Wynne for tourist development, has only one unknown Toronto residential construction company with no Caribbean experience – Pace Developments Inc. — committed to spending a mere US$60 million to build a 275-room hotel/resort project (see essay 43) while our Caribbean neighbours in St Lucia, Barbados, and Jamaica have just attracted large new projects by such renowned hoteliers as Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Sandals Resorts International, and Karisma Hotels and Resorts, respectively.

Karisma’s existing Azul Beach Resort Sensatori Jamaica in Negril

A: The mass tourism potential of our mainland is extremely limited compared to hundreds of other regional and global destinations, including our own alluring Grenadines islands, for all the reasons I have offered in previous essays.

Q: Why has elite Sandals Resorts International, which owns and operates 23 all-inclusive resorts on seven Caribbean islands, decided to construct up to 12 new Caribbean luxury hotels in the region over the next few years (including a US$375 million 580-room complex in Barbados and a US$500 million upscale facility in Tobago) but shunned development on SVI despite repeat visits here?

Sandals Royal Barbados, a luxurious 502-room property, will open just before Christmas joining a sister Sandals resort that was recently built there

A: We lack the natural requirements on the mainland, especially huge swathes of white sand beaches, to be a luxury, mass tourism destination.

Q: Why can’t we capitalize on the unprecedented current Caribbean tourism boom: a record 29.3 million tourists visited the islands in 2016; 41,000 new rooms are under construction or being planned, up more than 40 percent from the previous year, an increase led by several major projects such as a 2,000-room casino hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica, a 180-acre Marriot/Ritz-Carton hotel and villa project in St Lucia, and a 934-room beach resort in Varadero, Cuba?

A: Again, we lack the natural features for mass tourism development.

Sandals Resorts International over-the-water villas in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Q: Why was Buccament Bay Hotel and Resort shuttered, perhaps for good, on December 14, 2016, less than six years after its opening?

A: There was an apparent rejection of an alleged informal due diligence study by SVG’s National Investment Promotions Inc. — now called Invest SVG – prior to its construction, which found that foreign developer Dave Ames had neither the knowhow, experience, nor finances to build and operate what was supposed to be a 1,200-room hotel and resort, of which only 108 rooms were ever available for rental. Presumably, Ames was allowed to proceed because we beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to foreign developers and because the prime minister’s primary goal was to convince a gullible and unlettered electorate that the resort’s existence was joined at the hip to the construction of AIA: no airport, no resort – no resort, no airport. Doubtless, this was also the reason why the resort’s business license was not suspended for failing to file annual financial statements and tax returns for most of the 2006-2015 period.

Ironically, but not unexpectedly, in his judgment in the case that the parent Ames conglomerate, Harlequin Hotels and Resorts, lodged against its former accountants, Wilkins Kennedy, the British High Court judge, Sir Peter Coulson, concluded that Harlequin paid its chief contractor tens of millions with no written contract, no detailed agreement about the scope of the works to be done, no monitoring of those works, and no knowledge of their valuation. The result, he argued, was that “for a project of this size, the fact that there were no financial controls whatsoever beggars all belief.” Small wonder, then, that Ames is currently facing three counts of fraud in Great Britain totaling EC$1.37 billion.

Parallel charges have also been laid against AIA by local engineering critics using the terms “fiasco”, “absence of even a halfway-competent management”, “a massive, costly project-management bungle”, “a slow-motion economic disaster in progress”, “a disastrous shambles”, “gross mismanagement and incompetence”, “bogus economic premises”, “reckless incompetence”, and “a net drag on the economy of this country” to describe the airport’s helter-skelter conception, planning, implementation, and construction.

Justice Coulson concluded that Harlequin’s business model might be said to bear “the hallmarks of a serious and significant scam”, a charge also leveled against the AIA project by various critics.

More ironic still is the likely fulfillment of the country’s minister of public works, Julian Francis’ statement, as far back as 2012, that AIA and Buccament Bay Resort “…go hand in hand … They are twins. One can’t survive without the other.” An identical argument was offered by the prime minister for the Pace Developments Inc. agreement.

If true, both Pace and AIA will suffer the same fate as Buccament Bay Resort – a slow and painful death followed by a quick burial in the cemetery of foolish development ideas and with the same negative consequences for the Vincentian economy.

***

But there is much more to this unhappy but predictable parallel development of AIA and the Buccament Bay Resort, an assertion I address in my next essay.

***

This is the 62nd 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
49. St Vincent’s 2016 tourism numbers are nothing to brag about
50. Going forward or moonwalking? Lessons for Argyle International Airport
51. The visible hand of Adam Smith at Argyle International Airport
52. St Vincent Island doesn’t need any more hotel rooms
53. Lessons from St Lucia and Grenada for Argyle International Airport
54. Is Air Canada also a ‘huge game-changer’ for Argyle International Airport?
55. St Vincent’s mainland tourist attractions
56. How St Vincent’s tourist attractions stack up: Lessons for Argyle Airport
57. Lessons from Guyana for Argyle International Airport
58. The world’s best tourist islands: Lessons for Argyle International Airport
59. Explaining Argyle airport on St Vincent Island
60. Explaining Argyle airport: A clash of axioms
61. Questions and answers about the Argyle airport puzzle

C. ben-David

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