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Airport success demands transformation

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(Unfortunately, I missed last Friday’s issue for personal reasons, so I have submitted that column for publication today. Apologies.)

OURS – that is the almost unanimous conclusion that one gets from Vincentians these days, following the successful completion and official opening of the Argyle International Airport (AIA) last week. Even the long-time detractors, sceptics and the ‘refuseniks’, those who simply refused to believe that the AIA would come to fruition, have now reluctantly come to accept the inevitable. So, aside with political partisanship, at least, as a people, we have advanced in that regard. A good sign, that is.

Yet, despite the rhetoric on the part of all of us, despite the thousands who have visited the AIA in the weeks before opening, who flocked to the site on opening day, and who have continued to visit, apart from travellers, since then, our actions do not back up our claims of national ownership. There are those in Government, or in positions of responsibility, who sound as though they are telling us that the AIA is like salvation itself. But, as I have written before, it is WE, who express so much pride in the accomplishment, who must now make a success of the AIA. By itself, the airport cannot work the economic miracle as some make it out to be. It is like taking pride in your child gaining entrance to secondary school education, but if the child does not get the level of support necessary, how far will it reach in school?

There is now greater pressure on us all, not just the Government or tourism and airport authorities, to ensure that the AIA realizes its huge potential. This entails not only marketing of our country and what it offers, but also, importantly, how we treat/revere the airport and its surroundings. Do we treat the massive $700 million-plus investment with the same level of irresponsibility that we exhibit towards state property generally? Will we play our part in hastening its physical deterioration, or will we cherish it to the extent of rebuking and reporting those who show scant regard for its upkeep?

Maintenance of this investment and ensuring its efficient operation are as important as securing markets outside. They can be a huge drain on our meagre resources and if not handled properly, will undermine the viability of the investment. There is no room at the AIA for waste, slackness and corruption at whatever level. Just a couple years ago, our national Budget annually was in the $700 million range. In other words, what the airport has cost us could cover the entire national Budget of our country for an entire year; it is as plain as that. We cannot afford to fail.

Sadly, indications are, that after all the frustrating years of construction, we didn’t believe that the AIA would become a reality. The entrepreneurial efforts that one expected in and around the airport to make maximum use of this potential game-changer are not yet in bloom. The local investments that one anticipated – restaurants, entertainment spots, hotels, arts and craft, transportation, are yet to be seen in any meaningful form. Transport for one, is an area that has potential in the absence of any organised bus service and the high cost of taxi services from the Leeward areas to Argyle. A regular scheduled big bus service from Argyle through Kingstown and up the Leeward coast will serve many pockets and be a great convenience.

We talk a lot about the AIA as being our gateway to the world, opening us limitless possibilities for export of goods and services. That is true, but we must first have those goods and services to export. As recently stated by former Opposition Leader, Hon Arnhim Eustace, those goods and services must be of acceptable international quality, must be in sufficient volumes to make export economically viable, and, crucially, must be price competitive. These are prerequisites if we are going to make our mark internationally, via the AIA.

These are the kinds of messages we must get across, the type of preparations we must undergo if we are to make the AIA a success. Don’t expect overnight miracles, for the AIA cannot do for us what we would not do for ourselves, undergo transformation of the way we think, prepare and act. To approach it otherwise is a recipe for failure.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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