Our Readers' Opinions
February 2, 2016
Bequia Airport – An essential lifeline with an even brighter future

by Sir James Mitchell

(January 25, 2016)

(In Response To: “The Missing Argyle Airport Feasibility Studies” by C ben David, published online on January 4, 2016)

Mr ben David: I can understand your frustration with the professional inadequacy surrounding the Argyle International Airport project. However, the implication that the Bequia airport, like the Argyle International Airport, was never subjected to feasibility study is an unfortunate re-write of history.{{more}}

Proper guidance can be gleaned from a clear understanding of the facts surrounding the establishment of the Bequia airport. As early as 1974, Sir William Halcrow and Partners in association with the UK Transport Development Unit produced a design for a 4,000-foot runway at Paget Farm. Studies were undertaken for this report by among others the Caribbean Meteorological Institute and Airline Pilots, with British technical assistance.

The World Bank Report on Tourism, dated April 20 1982, stated that “The Grenadines are the area of most tourism potential,” stressing that priority be given to the development of “certain basic facilities, notably jetties and airstrips”. In October 1985, the European Investment Bank approved financing for the Bequia Airport Feasibility Study.

In May 1987 the final Feasibility Study by Wallace Evans and Partners was presented to the European Commission. This regional project was approved by 14 Caribbean and 12 European governments to be grant-funded under the Third LOME Convention.

All through the exercise, competitive tender procedures followed exhaustive advertisement in several European languages. Over 100 firms applied at the design stage, settling down to a final 15 firms from various European countries. Through these processes, the German firm of Kocks Consult GmbH was selected in June 1988 as Design and Supervision Consultants, with Interbeton/Ham of The Netherlands selected as Contractors in December 1989.

The Bequia airport went through over 41 stages of analysis, performance and certification procedures. These included the historic wave studies to determine the height of construction needed above sea level, and the critical Environmental Impact Assessment Study which was submitted on 16th August 1989.

The deep vibro compaction of the dredged sand was completed in November 1991, less than two years after the contract was awarded to Interbeton. (The dredge left Bequia to be deployed in the Hong Kong airport construction). Six months later, on 15th May 1992, The Bequia Airport was officially opened.

All stages of the development are a matter of public record and available to those who seek it. The Bequia airport project, complete with 1100 metre runway, was certified by the European Court of Auditors as executed within budget and on time. The final cost was EC$62 million, with EC$6 million counterpart contribution from the Government of SVG, mainly in land purchases and re-settlement of affected residents.

Already mobilized in the country, Kocks Consult was then also used to develop the airports in Canouan (Caribbean Development Bank and private sector funding) and Union Island (funded by Taiwan), and to make airport recommendations on mainland St Vincent. Interbeton/Ham was mobilised on the Cruise ship berth (financed by the European Investment Bank and Kuwait) and the Campden Park port (funded locally).

Your suggestion that deterioration of the airport building in Bequia is a lesson for Argyle entirely misses the point. There is no longer night landing in Bequia as equipment was taken away to supplement Canouan. Failure of washrooms and instances of corrosion after 20-plus years of atmospheric salinity should not be linked to project approval by the European Commission.

No, the right lesson from Bequia for Argyle should be that the successful execution of an idea or vision requires the preparation of plans by consultants who are recognized experts in their particular field. Crucially, performance levels in construction must also meet international standards.

Without an airport in Bequia – an island of beautiful white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, pleasing scenery and a long-standing tradition of welcoming hospitality for visitors by land and sea – the major hotel and villa investments from which both Bequia and SVG continue to benefit would never have been attracted. The same equally applies to airports in Mustique, Canouan and Union Island, linked to Palm Island and PSV.

When you refer to the “few tiny aircraft” that service Bequia (and by implication the other Grenadines airports), I wish to remind you that these aircraft, primarily the sizeable 19-seater Twin Otter, constitute the lifeline of tourism in our islands. This activity is the backbone of the country’s tourism economy affecting amongst other areas investment, construction and employment, as well as being the prime source of our essential tourist dollars.

Should anyone doubt the impact of the Bequia airport and the vibrancy of tourism in the Grenadines as a whole, they need only check activity at the Grenadines wharf on any day of the week, and compare it to any other place in Kingstown.

However, we urgently need open skies competition to lower prices and stimulate travel in our region. Cheaper air travel will not only attract more tourists; it will also give greater mobility to local residents who cannot afford the current limited service. Lower taxes would increase the volume of traffic overall and enhance revenue growth. Sixteen years of recurrent surpluses satisfy this authority.

Time to abandon the antiquated rules in our region that inhibit the deployment of modern, technologically superior single-engine aircraft for commercial use, as the rest of the world has already done. The latest Cessna Caravan and Grand Caravan workhorses can then be deployed to maximum effect throughout the Eastern Caribbean, following the successful example of St Barts, Belize and the Seychelles, among others. A reliable and affordable shuttle service within the Grenadines and to neighbouring islands is long overdue.

While I admire any attempt to unveil mental blockage in our society, we should promote what works. Aircraft in the Grenadines may be tiny, but they are efficiently and effectively operated. And looking ahead, potential investors already recognize that the addition of just 100 metres to the runway in Bequia will fulfill the original 1974 Halcrow concept and provide accommodation for private jets. An even brighter future is indeed within reach.

Let us not abandon the principle that small is beautiful, a concept that applies to both St Vincent and to her sister islands.

Now let us praise great works!