It is possible to fly to more than a dozen destinations from Antigua and Barbuda’s VC Bird International Airport, including Miami, Toronto and London, and the ease of access to the country has, historically, been one of the main drivers of growth in its tourism sector. Recently, however, the airport has been frequented not only by beach-bound tourists but also by a growing crowd of medical students coming to the country to study.

Obtaining a medical doctor (MD) degree in the Caribbean can cost as little as $50,000, while in the US, the cheapest medical programmes start at $180,000. Many Caribbean-based medical schools offer not only a significantly lower price tag, but also accreditations that are recognised in North America and residencies in hospitals in the US and Canada. It is little wonder, then, that the whole region is keen on establishing itself as a hub for offshore education, but few of the countries within it have been as successful at achieving this goal as Antigua and Barbuda.

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Exponential expansion

The country is a relatively new player in the medical education game. Although its University of Health Sciences Antigua (UHSA) has been in operation since 1983, the offshore education entity American University of Antigua (AUA) has only been in operation for seven years. During that time the number of AUA students has grown from nine to more than 1700, and, according to Neal Simon, AUA’s founder and president, the school is “planning to continue expanding its operations”.

Mr Simon estimates that AUA receives about 200 applications per week, so his eagerness to expand operations is understandable. But why do students choose AUA over other schools, given that there are more 30 medical institutions in the Caribbean offering MD degrees?

“We are very successful with securing residencies and on top of that we are owned by Manipal Education, which is internationally renowned for its quality of teaching,” says Mr Simon. He adds that the location also plays an important role, given that “Antigua is a popular destination among students, since they have an access to amenities that they know from back home”.

Year-round demand

Importantly, students use those amenities all year round, which works to counterbalance the seasonal nature of leisure tourism. This is just one of the reasons why the country's authorities are keen to develop the remote education industry. “We are going to aggressively seek out business opportunities in the offshore education industries," says Dr McChesney Emanuel, chairman of the board at Antigua and Barbuda Investment Authority (ABIA). "It is also linked to our general focus on the outsourcing industry." Mr Emanuel estimates that the sector, together with healthcare tourism, can generate annual revenues in excess of $200m.

As well as AUA and UHSA, the country is also home to Antigua and Barbuda International Institute of Technology, Antigua and Barbuda Hotel Training Institute and the Antigua State College. The majority of these institutions cater for local students, but the demand from foreign students is growing.

Makeda Mikael, one of Antigua and Barbuda's most successful female entrepreneurs, believes that the remote education industry can be seen as a compelling investment opportunity in the country. “There is a lot of potential to invest in that sector and be successful,” she says. Although Ms Mikael’s company, FBO 2000, provides aviation services to high-end clients, she recently decided to lend her business expertise to the country's educational board, which is looking to boost the number of ventures in the education sector.

In anticipation of the future growth of the offshore education sector, VC Bird International Airport is undergoing expansion. A project led by China Civil Engineering Company is expected to increase foot traffic at the airport from 1 million people per year to 1.5 million. “The expansion gives us a lot of room to increase our passenger traffic,” says Bernard T Lewis, consulting civil engineer at Antigua and Barbuda Airport Authority. With the remote education sector ripe for growth, it is hoped that this increased capacity will soon be utilised.