December 19, 2014

Tourism officials stare reality

I am taking comments made by Glen Beache, chief executive officer of the SVG Tourism Authority as representative of the thinking and work of the Authority and not as his personal views. In any event, Searchlight’s December 5 article “SVGTA still in talks with international airlines” that was informed by a press conference, reveals him as a much more sober individual than he was a few years ago. He has over the years provided much needed optimism about the future of international air traffic to and from SVG.{{more}} The discussions that have been taking place about our ‘soon-to be’ international airport include its viability and with this of course, the question of which airlines will be attracted here. Our CEO seemed to have had the answers for these. In fact since 2011, he has been updating us on the progress being made in that area. There was a great deal of hope on our part and even the present Minister of Tourism seemed to have been so carried away with his pronouncements that recently he informed regional tourism officials that next year was going to be a bumper year for us, in fact our best year ever in terms of arrivals to the country. Next year is only weeks away!

Beache’s recent comments as carried in the Searchlight were a shocker to me. He admitted that even though marketing is his ‘forte’ it ‘has been an eye opener’ to him for he was now struck by the intricacies of the airline industry. Even more revealing was his statement that no airlines will come unless they can make a profit? ‘No one is coming here because they have a love for SVG.’ Why does he only now recognise these? If one followed his statements over the years based on the updates on the progress SVGTA was making in attracting airlines to our new airport, one would have thought that they had all of this under their belts.

Let us follow his comments over the years. In 2011 at ‘the 4th Routes Americas event’ held in the Dominican Republic he is quoted as saying that the international airport is sparking ‘the interest of major carriers from the U.S., Canada and Europe along with leading hotel and resort companies.’ In October 2012, he assured us that they would soon be able to release the names of airlines that would travel to SVG, once the airport was completed. He was even confident that they would have been able to ‘finalise a deal with at least one US carrier by 1 April to perform at least a twice-weekly service to the Argyle…’ He said, moreover, that agreements with airlines were to be in place by spring of the next year.

He must have had some guarantees from the airlines then. How come he is only now able to say, “Obviously the airlines do not want to take all of the risk. We are going to have to help them out with some of the risk” Amazing! Airline business, we should have known, is very complex and is driven, like other businesses, by profit; that airlines are doing everything to ensure that they make profits by streamlining their operations and moving to the routes best able to ensure their viability, even now charging for all luggage except the ‘carry-on’. He spoke of preliminary discussions with American operators, among them, South West Airlines even though that airline was quoted as saying, that it did not have immediate plans to start service to a new city and did not confirm having specific conversations about Argyle. The CEO indicated that he was pleased with the general consensus of the airlines’ spokespersons with whom they interacted, who seemed enthused and excited about the progress and promise of the airport, which, of course, they expected to be completed in 2012.

Of all the dialogue with representatives of airlines, he felt that British Airways was the most promising: “I think if we had finished negotiations in terms of certain things being put in place, British Airways was ready to sign on the dotted line.” Air Berlin seemed to have been a big catch since its only Caribbean destination is Cuba and it has limited traffic to the U.S. And so everything seemed to have been going according to plan but as we near the end of the tunnel matters are no longer so clear. “Obviously the airlines do not want to take all of the risk. We’re going to have to help them out with some of the risk(s). The point we are at now is how much of the risk we want to share and how much they want to take. That’s going to be the sticking point.”

He also waxes rhetorically, “Are we going to waive the landing fees? Are the crew members going to be able to stay free overnight? Are we going to take up that cost?” He admits that we will have to take some of the risks but we do not as yet know how much ‘but hopefully we’ll know sooner than later’. Those are serious questions but we have to remember that we do not have much, if any bargaining cards.

This is really a warning to us that we have to be realistic about these things and must have an understanding of what goes on in the global village. But what bothers me is that our CEO never seemed to have taken these matters into account, admittedly, because he was unaware of the intricacies of airline business! Really! I am a bit depressed with all of this for we have to face this reality since we cannot talk our way out of it.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.