PHOTO: Argyle International Airport, St. Vincent, back when it was just a proposed site and a plan. (Photo via Flickr/Ian Mackenzie)
Argyle International Airport opened this week in St. Vincent and the Grenadines following a controversial, eight-year development process. The new airport received two flights from Caribbean Airlines and Dynamics Airline on February 14 following their departure from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Return flights on the two Caribbean-serving carriers will depart Argyle International Airport on February 21. The new facility features a 171,000 square foot terminal building and is capable of accommodating aircraft as large as Boeing 747-400’s. The airport also features two jetway bridges plus restaurants, bars and shops, according to a St.Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority (SVGTA) statement.
Construction delays have plagued the project since the tiny Caribbean nation first announced the plan in 2007. Originally scheduled to open in 2011, Argyle International Airport is equipped to handle 1.5 million passengers per year, more than five times the number of passengers that currently utilize existing E.T. Joshua Airport.
The new airport was financed by St. Vincent’s government with grants, donations and loans from countries including Cuba, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Austria, Malaysia, Turkey, Qatar and Taiwan.
Described as the most costly capital project in the nation’s history, with its $240 million price tag representing nearly one half of St. Vincent’s gross domestic product, construction involved the “removal of three mountains, filling two valleys [and] creating embankments” and the bridging of a river, St. Vincent government officials said in 2015.
The controversy surrounding the project has focused not only on the repeated construction delays and decade-long building process but on the airport’s very feasibility. Although an SVGTA statement notes “tourism has been the major economic earner for St. Vincent and the Grenadines for the last two decades,” the nation hosted 63,067 land-based and cruise-ship visitors between January and October, 26th among the 28 countries that submitted 2016 arrivals data to the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).
Moreover, while the airport is “expected [to] increase earnings” in the country’s tourism sector according to SVGTA, no major carriers have announced scheduled service to the airport beyond this week’s flights.
Glen Beache, SVGTA’s CEO, acknowledged in 2015 the construction delays made negotiating with airlines for future service more difficult. Although the SVG government would subsidize airlines to attract service to the new airport, he acknowledged that “Airlines are not coming in here unless they can make a profit.”
Meanwhile, local tourism stakeholders have also questioned the island’s ability to accommodate a significant visitor arrivals increase. The country’s largest resort, Buccament Bay, is in bankruptcy and has been closed since December.
Comprised of 32 islands and cays in the southern Caribbean, visitors to the country generally travel to the main island of St. Vincent. Eight other inhabited islands also host travelers: Young Island, Bequia, Union, Mayreau, Mustique, Canouan, Palm Island and Petit St. Vincent.
The horseshoe-shaped Tobago Cays reef shelters five deserted islets and is known as a center for sailing and snorkeling and the country’s 250-year-old Botanical Gardens, are described as the Western Hemisphere’s oldest.
The Gardens originated in 1765 when the colonial government established a breeding center to provide medicinal plants to the military. The Gardens are also famous as Captain William Bligh’s destination on his second Caribbean visit in 1798, during which he introduced breadfruit to the island. Breadfruit remains the country’s national dish.