Our Readers' Opinions
February 28, 2017
Argyle International Airport sets stage for SVG economic take-off

by Vaughan Toney

The long-awaited inauguration of Argyle International Airport this month could not have come at a more propitious moment. Delayed by multiple misfortunes beyond our control — including a global economic downturn and a succession of debilitating natural disasters — the project has finally soared to a majestic culmination that was nine years in the making. In the course of that journey, we have literally moved mountains, spanned a river, relocated a church, a cemetery and more than 140 homes to make this signal achievement possible. And now, with the opening of this new airport, the sky’s the limit: our national prospects are cleared for take-off as we pursue the ever widening vistas of opportunity that beckon from a no longer distant horizon.

This moment is all the more auspicious for the fact that it coincides with a resurgence of our country’s economic fortunes. Even the customarily combative International Monetary Fund (IMF) was forced to admit as much in its latest country report, noting that “economic activity in St Vincent and the Grenadines appears to have recovered – led by strong tourism inflows and a rebound in construction.” The IMF specifically singled out the new airport for favourable review, noting that its completion is “expected to sustain both near- and medium-term economic growth as tourist arrivals are boosted by greater airlift capacity and construction expands tourism infrastructure. The current account deficit is expected to narrow gradually as tourism inflows increase [and] additional imports to supply tourism services are expected to be financed by foreign direct investment.”

In short, the vision that inspired and propelled this project from its conception more than a decade ago has been vindicated by even the most rigorous and impartial analysis. But we need not rely exclusively on the IMF for that vindication. In confronting the skeptics and the naysayers as far back as 2005, Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves addressed the economic imperative of this visionary investment head on. Speaking at the Methodist Church Hall on August 8th of that year, Dr Gonsalves acknowledged the “genuine concern” that had been raised about the projected cost of undertaking so ambitious a project. But he countered the question of whether we can afford an international airport with a question of his own: can St Vincent and the Grenadines afford not to have an international airport?

“The requisites of economic diversification and regional and international competitiveness demand an international airport,” he said at the time. “Our country’s tourism potential would not be fully realized
unless we build an airport, and tourism is likely to be our main foreign exchange earner for a long time to come.” The Prime Minister went on to enumerate the benefits of a modern, international airport as a catalyst for economic integration with the wider Caribbean and international community, as well as its likely impact on fostering more frequent travel and investment from Vincentian nationals in the diaspora.

In order to more fully appreciate the scope of the global economic bonanza from which we have been excluded until now, consider this: according to the Geneva-based non-profit Air Transport Action Group, the worldwide aviation industry currently supports more than 58 million jobs and generates a global economic impact estimated at some $2.4 trillion. Closer home, the air transport industry in Latin American and the Caribbean alone supports nearly five million jobs and generates more than $150 billion in economic activity.

Within our immediate Caribbean area, the aviation sector supports some 112,000 jobs, including tens of thousands of jobs through the industry’s supply chain. Moreover, according to the international research and forecasting think-tank Oxford Economics, the aviation industry facilitates even further benefits to our region through the “catalytic effects” of tourism, including hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars through the tourism sector’s supply chain. In neighbouring St Lucia, for example, the travel and tourism industry contributes annually in excess of $300 million to the island’s economy, accounting for nearly a third of total GDP and supporting more than 22,000 jobs. With the inauguration of Argyle International Airport, St Vincent and the Grenadines will finally be able to compete for our fair share of those benefits that until now have been beyond our reach.

But, as Oxford Economics also points out, the economic value created by the air transport industry goes way beyond its contribution to GDP, jobs and tax revenues; the connections created between cities and markets represent an important “infrastructure asset” that also generates its own benefits.

In a previous commentary, I recalled that the seed of this Argyle International Airport was first planted by the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) amidst a global financial crisis that began in the United States and triggered a devastating economic downturn throughout the developing world. But, as Prime Minister Gonsalves himself remarked at the time, “a farmer who waits for good weather never plants, and a farmer who never plants, never reaps.” Having planted despite the weather, our nation is now poised to reap an abundant harvest. Argyle International Airport is a monumental achievement that belongs to all Vincentians – at home and abroad. We have proved yet again that once united, we can literally move mountains to build for ourselves and our children a 21st century Vincentian nation that preserves our heritage and secures our future.

Vaughan Toney is vice-chair of the Friends of Argyle International Airport. He is a Vincentian national, community leader and business executive based in New York.