Blessed with a wealth of natural beauty, the small Caribbean archipelago of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has become known for the high-end luxury of some of its secluded, ruggedly beautiful islands such as Mustique, and for its immaculate sailing waters.
However, due to a lack of connectivity, the country has never fully reached its full potential for tourism or for international investment, and the tourism dividends have not filtered down to most of the population, with GDP per capita standing at less than $14,000.
New airport, new economic era
But that is potentially changing, amid hopes the February opening of the long-awaited Argyle International Airport could usher in a new economic era for the country. Direct international air connections to key tourist source markets in the Americas and beyond will surely boost international arrivals and have a lasting positive spillover effect throughout the tourism industry and wider economy. Meanwhile, the export potential of the agribusiness and other sectors will also receive a boost.
“The airport is hopefully the transformational thing we’ve been looking for,” says Anthony Regisford, executive director of the country’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce.
The country of just over 100,000 people, located in the southern Caribbean, is composed of a main island, Saint Vincent, where capital Kingstown sits, and a chain of a few dozen smaller islands. The economy is heavily reliant upon agriculture, and within that on just a few crops such as arrowroot and bananas, making the economy vulnerable to external factors and dangerously specialised.
With this need for diversification in mind, Invest SVG, the national investment agency, is trying to drum up investor interest in agro-processing but also – importantly, if ambitiously in some cases – in non-farming activities including tourism development (including marina development and multipurpose resort development), light manufacturing, ICT, international financial services, creative industries and renewable energy.
Stable and educated
While having not yet established an international profile in productive sectors, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is strong on what the country’s prime minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, calls “predisposing” investment factors such as political stability (he has been in power 16 years); a reliable, independent court system guaranteeing protection of rights; and a well-educated labour force, not to mention inducing factors such as generous tax incentives for investors, particularly in hotels and tourism.
As with most Caribbean countries, tourism is integral to the economy. And while this sector is a fickle one upon which to hang economic stability, with worldwide tourist numbers rising along with incomes, and given the natural assets Saint Vincent and the Grenadines possesses – many parts of it are the very picture of an island paradise – there is certainly room for growth.
Cruise ship arrivals are on the rise, bringing increasing numbers of visitors by sea (2016 saw nearly 100,000 such arrivals compared with 82,000 in 2015). Overall visitor arrivals in 2016 outstripped the regional tourism growth average and rose more than 20,000 over the 2015 figure, at 227,230, according to the national tourism authority. But this is half what other small Caribbean countries such as the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands received, while Jamaica – by contrast – welcomed 2.1 million visitors last year.
While the Grenadines islands have carved out a niche in the monied yachting crowd due to waters which many claim are the finest sailing waters in the world, the main island of Saint Vincent has been overlooked and the lack of direct air links had left the country off the usual Caribbean tourist trail. The new airport should improve the air connectivity factor.
There are hopes that the country can land a name-brand hotel or resort to put its tourism sector more firmly on the map, and with the new airport now operational this becomes a realistic objective. Glen Beache, chief executive officer of the Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority and minister of tourism Cecil McKie have been under public pressure to secure commitments from international airlines to serve the airport. After years of hype about (and delays to) the airport, there is an impatience to see this large public investment pay off.
“We should be seeing a lot of interest now that we have the airport. It was a chicken-and-egg scenario before, with airlines wanting to see more hotels here and hotel groups wanting to see more flights, but we should see something happening sooner rather than later,” says Mr Beache. “The airport opens up a whole new level of marketing that we can do with tour operators, airlines and hotels.”
Air Canada announced in May that it would begin weekly flight service from Toronto in December 2017, following Caribbean Airlines’ launch of the airport's first non-stop regional flights in April 2017, a twice-weekly service from Trinidad and Tobago.
Learning from others
While new visitors will be welcome (and are needed to support local jobs), the government is careful to stress that it does not want to become a mass-market destination and will remain focused on the high-end luxury segment.
“Our unique selling point is the diversity of our tourism product. We have 32 islands and keys. We have volcanoes, black sand beaches, coral reefs, sea life, the best diving and snorkelling as well as sailing waters, and so we can offer everything from eco-tourism to adventure to romance,” says Mr Beache. “Yet we don’t want to spread ourselves too wide, and instead will focus on what we are already strong in.”
Some point to Costa Rica as a model for development. It has protected its rugged natural beauty while becoming an extremely popular tourism destination.
“Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is a virgin island with an eco-friendly ethos and green environment and that differentiates us. It means the type of investment we look for must be the right fit and must be sustainable. The airport could lead to a lot of ad hoc development if we’re not careful,” says the Chamber of Industry and Commerce’s Mr Regisford. “We really have an opportunity, because we’re new to this game so we can learn from what others have done before us and really do it right.”