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Argyle and the propaganda! – What are the facts?

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by Jerrol Thompson 13.JUNE.08

Anti-Airport propaganda has failed miserably, and it signifies the level of opposition desperation and frenzy as the Vincentian dream of an International Airport becomes more and more of a reality. This misguided strategy will not work, as every false pronouncement by the doubting Thomases has been met with revelation to the contrary.{{more}}

Arnhim Eustace said the airport was a rumour. One week later, heavy equipment arrived. They said the equipment was old and second hand but the new equipment was paraded for all to see, simultaneously casting away any doubt of imminent airport construction. Nevertheless, there are distinctly different opinions, ranging from “I am proud of the airport and it is too long overdue”; (heard from the majority and most fervent supporters), to that of more hard core pessimists who secretly wish Argyle never occurs, due to its perceived, profound political implications and who state “we don’t’ need it”. There are those somewhere in between who believe that we do need the airport but “we can’t afford it?” While others: “can we sustain it”? There has also been a barrage of questions and pronouncements which border on the absurd, ridiculous, and rank politicking. There are claims that in spite of the many press conferences and openness to questions that the people are being kept in the dark. Those like the Leader of the Opposition can easily ask questions in the house of assembly but choose not to. Some persons have stated that the NDP should give back the lands to the Argyle residents. They call the coalition of the willing stupid.

The Leader of the Opposition finally broke his three-year silence and stated he prefers an extension of Arnos Vale, which would have been a monumental environmental disaster, was almost as costly and does little to improve air transport. He inflates the cost of the airport to $1 billion to suggest it is unobtainable and to create a distraction demands that we choose between a hospital and an Airport. Clearly, he ignores the ongoing construction of the new medical and diagnostic Hospital at Georgetown. He readily supports the backward and demeaning chant, wah-we-a-go wid dat, that St. Vincent is too small, insignificant, and too ambitious, and Argyle may put us in debt.

Do we need an International Airport? This question was answered brilliantly in Luke Brown’s article in the June 6th issue of the Searchlight. I would like to add that an International Airport is a critical part of our Export Strategy and rapid and prompt export of perishable agricultural commodities and urgent air-lift of manufactured items. Without Argyle there will be persistent, crippling limitations to exports of perishable produce.

Global recession and higher airfares is a deterrent to travel and the number of air passengers. Additionally, rising oil / fuel prices are forcing airlines to cut back and eliminate routs or demand special subsidies. The net result is that nations like SVG must choose which side of the access and economic fence they want to find themselves. Will SVG stay in the back waters of the Caribbean as an unprofitable, high priced, difficult to access destination with long stop-over, and far less likely to be chosen by travelers. Clearly, without Argyle no significant, real or robust growth in hotel development and tourism can occur.

Is Argyle Sustainable? Arnhim Eustace has arrogantly dismissed last year’s magnificent 51% increase in Cruise passengers and stated that we need to focus on higher overnight stay numbers instead, as these types of passengers spend much more. Whereas this is true, he is wrong to dismiss the impact of cruise passengers on taxi, tour bus, tour operator and tour guide revenues. All have claimed that 2007 was the best season ever. However, it is Arnhim’s dishonest double talk which has repeatedly troubled me. His demand for increased overnight stay numbers must be compared to his criticism of the Buccament Bay Hotel project, other planned hotel construction and the Argyle Airport. He has failed to grasp the fact that it is the total number of hotel rooms which will determine the number of air lifts and overnight passengers required to fill these hotel rooms.

The goal is by 2011 to 2014 there will be over 4,000 rooms on main land St. Vincent alone. (Currently just less than 1,000). With an average visitor length of stay of 10-12 days, and assuming a 70% annual room occupancy rate, one can expect 220,000 overnight passengers per year or an average of 4,200 passengers weekly. This will require 17 international jets weekly (which can carry 250 passengers) or 2 to 3 jets per day in order to airlift these visitors from Europe, New York, Canada, Miami or South America. The 1,200 room Buccament Bay Hotel’s new management team (OASIS) has a fleet of 20 wide body jets available and prefer to fly guests directly to Argyle – St. Vincent rather than a series of long, frustrating intermediate hops. Argyle can, therefore, be cost effective and sustainable. Arnhim Eustace has expressed that we can use smaller wide body jets from Brazil to airlift from Puerto Rico to Arnos Vale. This has some merit, but does Arnhim suggest the government buy these jets for millions of dollars, form an airline company or just give them to LIAT to operate? Alternatively, can we force LIAT to buy them? Clearly, this option is complicated and what of visitors from Europe who do not fly into Puerto Rico. It can only complement real solutions such as an Argyle Int. Airport. The suggestion is also quite surprising, as Arnhim has long wanted to see the demise of LIAT.

Canouan: The Opposition was highly critical and voted against the construction of the Canouan Jet-Port, but Eustace now suggests this airport should be used for most of our International travel with hydrofoils and fast ferry deployed to bring people over to the mainland. The Canouan Jet-port will clearly pay for itself and will even require an expansion of its already large aircraft tarmac parking area, as larger numbers of jets are expected in up-coming years as Southern Grenadines Hotels increase. The option of using hydrofoils was evaluated in the early stages of Canouan Jet-ports development. However, most visitors to St. Vincent preferred landing directly on St. Vincent and that from time to time persons might be stranded on Canouan overnight by bad weather and rough seas and any restrictions on these sea vessels being used at night. I like having a choice between the two options. However, Argyle will not represent competition to Canouan, nor an additional airport, but a replacement for Arnos Vale. The cost of running an extended Arnos Vale would not have been much less than Argyle Int. Airport and would require the same services; air traffic, fire, security, cargo, etc.

Can we afford it? …YES, WE CAN! The answer to this question rests in the fundamental difference between Arnhim Eustace and Ralph Gonsalves. If it were left to Arnhim Eustace, he would have typically gone to the World Bank and asked for a loan for Arnos Vale and they would have told him NO! He would have then gone home and settled for this. He is permanently stuck in the smallness of our size and that of backward thinking of some minds. He firmly believes this nation cannot achieve and so makes no attempt to do so, but also infects everyone around him with self-doubt and a lack of desire to achieve.

Gonsalves, on the other hand, believes in our strengths and possibilities, and has proposed a creative way using a Coalition of the Willing and our passion for growth, with no significant increase in our national debt. The list is long, ranging from human resources, consultancy and concessionary support from Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico. Hard cash from Taiwan, Venezuela and Trinidad and pledges of financial and technical support from the Caricom Development Fund, Malaysia, Canada, etc. Some persons want a statement of exactly where every single cent will come from Now! – before we even start. I am satisfied we have enough. The critical issue is that like building a house, you must know where most of the money is coming from and ensure there is enough to start and complete the work, while continually seeking additional sources of support. In some cases, the exact amount from a specific source may change and even increase over the next three years. Other creative sources such as the limited sale of land in Bequia and St. Vincent or the equity and future value of the Arnos Vale Airport lands are enormous.

If we all were so risk adverse and required every cent up front before we acted, many of us would have never bought or built a house, started a businesses or invested in that bright idea. Many persons never got a scholarship but still took off for University and worked in odd jobs and toiled until they finally achieved. If they had waited for all the money up front and in hand, they would never achieve a higher education. Most of the money for the Argyle Int. Airport is there. So, Vincentians, brace yourselves and prepare for a new era. You can choose to stay in the cocoon and straight jacket mentality of smallness and its limitations or you can become a believer, and like most of us prepare yourself for the possibilities. The Argyle Int. Airport is coming.

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