Premier and Minister for Finance, Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith has refuted comments made by the People’s Empowerment Party PEP that cost considerations would influence tourists to travel to the BVI via the USVI route even if Government expands the Beef Island airport runway.

At a press conference on 25 November, Premier Smith said that Government is still pursuing the airport project because it is important: “We have been going forward very carefully with the airport project, because we know it is essential and beneficial to the continuous development of tourism in the BVI. At the moment we are reviewing the options of financing and currently one of the options is considering a public private partnership in which case once that is done effectively, then the cost will not be a significant factor,” Hon. Smith said.

In referring to the PEP comment about cost being a factor, the BVI Leader said that this is not so: “The reality is that before the pull out of American Airlines many tourists came through the Airport at Beef Island, in fact a significant amount of tourists [did]. The alternate route through the USVI has developed as a result of the loss of that carrier between the BVI and Puerto Rico. Once we develop the ability for planes to land from Puerto Rico again and even from the US mainland Miami that would give us quite a boost and an advantage and the cost should not be prohibitive once it is done properly,” Hon. Smith said.

During the PEP radio program on November 25, the Party’s view on the proposed airport runway extension project was solicited by a caller to the program who reminded Hon. Christopher of his participation in the previous airport project. The caller also announced that the present airport situation leaves the Territory at a disadvantage when compared to other Caribbean tourism destinations.

Hon. Christopher responded that the issue has more to do with cost than it has to do with infrastructure. In fact, the PEP Chairperson stated that the cost of air travel to the Territory is the number one reason why many tourists travel to the BVI via the US Virgin Islands. “What has hindered the flights coming into Beef Island at this time is cost, and I think that is where some attention should be focused; to find how we can get regular flights in with a reduced cost. If we can accomplish that then I believe we are well on our way to meet the present demand of our tourist industry at this point in time.”

Hon. Christopher also announced that the local airlines can assist greatly in remedying the airlift situation. “There are a lot of small business persons who have local airlines, but the government has not gone out and helped support to get them up and running, and doing everything possible, even to lifting certain restrictions and costs that they can operate in the environment,” the Chairperson of PEP declared.

With local airlines assisted, Hon. Christopher said that the Territory can use the neighbouring international airports as hubs: “Antigua, St. Martin, Puerto Rico, USVI; our close proximity to those hubs would make a major difference if we could reduce the cost by maybe having somewhere along the line maybe a local carrier; one that we can support and sponsor and encourage to flourish,” he stated.

PEP President Natalio Wheatley also contributed to the discussion and agreed that more tourists would fly to the Territory if it was more economical to do so: “People don’t necessarily go to St. Thomas because we don’t have a long runway; they go to St. Thomas because of the price. They would be coming to Beef Island now if the price was right for them. Now, what you have to ask yourself: Is building this expensive airport going to help you reduce the price? I would like to see the feasibility study”

He further stated: “Once a feasibility study has been done; let’s take a look at it, and then we have a conversation. I would doubt that the cost would go down significantly….It’s not necessarily the solution to spend $377 million to solve that problem; fix the ferry service. Make sure that you have ferries running so that, when the planes land, you have connecting ferry service to the Virgin Islands. It’s really not that difficult a concept. It just needs some proper priority,” Wheatley added.

Some pundits feel that the heavy rates American Airlines imposed for flights to/from BVI were a deterrent for potential visitors for too many years. They say that the new permanent hub to the BVI is St Thomas and that is a reality we must face and in a way be glad for; Puerto Rico is a thing of the past, they say “and just as well”.