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A birth and baptism with a difference

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Next Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, we will witness a unique birth and baptism. The Argyle International Airport, this country’s largest capital project, has finally arrived after a long period of gestation that had been beset by many hurdles. As we go forward, we must prepare ourselves to face the many challenges that will inevitably come. While we are at this, it would do us well to assess what has transpired over the eight years of the project. Much had been said, some of it very constructive; but, unfortunately, any criticism of it was dubbed unpatriotic. There had been much to criticize, particularly the whole unorthodox approach to the management of the project. One of the major failings was the unwillingness or perhaps, the inability to unite the country behind a project that from inception demanded a united front. It is clear that many of the financial problems faced in the recent past had to do with the demands of a large champagne project on a country with mauby pockets. Sacrifices were needed, but this was downplayed, as we readily accepted that a large share of the resources needed was going to be met by a ‘coalition of the willing’ and that we would have been spared any major financial inputs. In any large project, and we can see this especially with Ottley Hall and Canouan, the community needs to be conversant with the anticipated challenges and the limits of the investors’ authority. Any chance of a united front with the AIA disappeared on that memorable day when equipment decorated in red, flags and jerseys were paraded through Kingstown on their way to Argyle. So, it took on a partisan flavour almost from the beginning.

We cannot simply dismiss what has passed while we look ahead. It is a reality that, for the benefit of the country, will have to work. It is not a matter of saying thanks for not having to face customs and immigration in Barbados, because even with access to international flights, we have at some point to deal with Barbados for regional travel. Also, travelling home from Barbados after an international flight has landed will make us realize that quite often there are more St Lucians and Grenadians taking the LIAT flight home. One of the challenges will be to attract stayover visitors to the country. Vincentians fly home in large numbers only at Christmas and Carnival. So, there will be a great dependence on visitors and business people. Problems are inevitable in the short run; first attracting international carriers and the shortage of adequate hotel accommodation. We have also to provide attractions for visitors. Tourist promotion is key, but do we have a developed tourism product? Tourism promotion is more than money. The kind of promotion done and the areas targeted will be important. Curiosity by itself will not be an attraction. What are the products and services we are going to sell?

This brings us to the question of the cost of running the airport. I am not sure, but I doubt that any of the airports in the region can fully cover its maintenance from revenue generated from its operation. In the short run, at least, most of the maintenance costs will have to be met by the taxpayers of the country. We have already seen evidence of this, the doubling of the departure tax, for one. Although the increase in VAT is not sold as part of servicing the airport, it undoubtedly is, as with other taxes. The PM said that the anticipated cost of operating the AIA will be $EC 20 million, $13 million more than at Arnos Vale. I am surprised that the maintenance cost will be less than twice that of Arnos Vale, for standards have to be maintained. The cost of electricity, as the PM admitted, will, in the short run, be tremendous. There are obviously going to be additional costs associated with battling the ‘sea blast’ for which Argyle is so famous and maintaining the grounds. As a country, we pay little attention to maintenance, but for a project that made heavy financial demands this cannot be so. We will be saddled not only with paying the debt related to construction, but the cost of maintenance.

The area which holds out much hope if the airport is to be central to the economic take-off that is talked about, is the ability to export fish and agricultural products. This is more easily said than done. If we are thinking merely of supplying small businesses of Vincentian and other Caribbean people, then this might be relatively easy, but cost becomes a factor, for consumers are not going to buy a product simply because it comes from SVG. Supplies to supermarkets and other large commercial enterprises will demand large quantities, regularity of supply, consistency with standards and attractive presentation. The point I want to really make is that when the celebrations and excitement of the long-anticipated opening of the airport have subsided, the serious work begins. It cannot be business as usual. We must be prepared to meet all the challenges and issues that will arrive, some anticipated, others not. We will be dealing with a living organism to which we gave birth and which, if not handled properly, can become unruly.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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