Airport key to St. Vincent's evolution

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The upcoming Argyle Airport in St. Vincent has brought interest from hotel developers in the multi-island destination.
The upcoming Argyle Airport in St. Vincent has brought interest from hotel developers in the multi-island destination.

It's a 32-island nation of which nine islands are inhabited. The small islands curve south from St. Vincent, the largest of the archipelago and the heart and capital of the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), west toward Grenada.

"We've got it all: beautiful boutique resorts, marinas, sailing, yachting and diving, and now we're getting an airport," said Glen Beache, CEO of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority.

The $250 million Argyle Airport is slated to open in December or January. A groundbreaking ceremony for the facility was held in 2008 and its opening was originally scheduled for 2012, but construction delays have prompted several postponements. Until it opens, visitors will continue to fly into E. T. Joshua regional airport, served by interisland flights from Barbados 90 miles east and other neighboring islands, or they can arrive by ferry from nearby islands.

Canouan is one of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ nine inhabited islands.
Canouan is one of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ nine inhabited islands.

"This has been a major undertaking on a volcanic island. To build this airport, engineers had to move three mountains, fill two valleys, create embankments and span a river," Beache said. No international carriers have yet committed to serving the airport, which will be capable of handling up to 1.4 million passengers a year. SVG registered close to 62,000 air arrivals in 2014, the bulk of them passengers from the U.S. and Europe.

Glen Beache
Glen Beache

"Airlines usually wait until closer to an airport's completion to commit to flights and schedules. This would be a whole lot easier if we had had a true international airport before," Beache said. During the Caribbean Tourism Organization's annual Caribbean Week event held recently in New York, he met with representatives from JetBlue, American and Delta. Argyle Airport will be the second solar-powered airport in the Caribbean; a solar farm debuted at St. Kitts' Robert Bradshaw Airport in late 2013. The airport is a critical cog in the evolution of the multi-island destination's hospitality sector, Beache said.

"It has generated considerable interest among hotel investors and developers. There is a Canadian developer now who has expressed interest in building three branded properties in St. Vincent: a three-star, four-star and six-star hotel plus a golf course and a complex of 200 bungalows," Beache said. "If we get a branded hotel property, it gives legitimacy to the destination and helps bring in potential visitors who like to stay at a hotel whose name they recognize."

A four-bedroom villa at Buccament Bay in St. Vincent, the largest resort and the only all-inclusive property in the 32-island nation.
A four-bedroom villa at Buccament Bay in St. Vincent, the largest resort and the only all-inclusive property in the 32-island nation.

Room stock in the nine inhabited islands is at 2,400 rooms. Beache wants to raise it to a maximum of 3,500 rooms. Most properties are boutique in size, under 100 rooms, except for the all-inclusive Buccament Bay villa resort on St. Vincent, which opened in August 2011 and now has close to 1,000 units.

"All of our properties are redoing room stock and implementing basic standards set by the tourism board. We've also implemented training programs for taxi drivers. All of this is in preparation for the opening of the new airport, which will be a game-changer for us and will make the destination a big force in the industry," Beache said. The big airport is spawning developments elsewhere in the Grenadines. Canouan Pink Sands on Canouan, a tiny island 25 miles south of St. Vincent, will open in 2016 on the site of the former Carenage Bay.

"A state-of-the-art marina recently opened on Canouan, and the tiny airport there is being expanded to handle jets," Beache said. Petit St. Vincent, a private island resort 40 miles south of St. Vincent, is home to the Cousteau Caribbean Dive Center, which opened in November. "The airport has been the impetus to push SVG into the limelight. Our first-quarter air arrivals were up 5.9% over the same period in 2014, but numbers are relative. The challenge is that SVG as a destination is up against the world," Beache said.

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