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Political activist Athie Martin
Political activist Athie Martin

Dominicans have this dream of coming in from New York or London and landing at an international airport. That's the observation of a development expert based abroad. What this expert did not say, but can be taken as gospel, is that Dominicans at home also dream of watching jumbo jets carrying hundreds of passengers land at an international airport here.

And, while this dream remains elusive, this expert and others have warned that if it is realised the dream will rapidly become a nightmare from which the country might never escape.

"No one has really thought of the impact," said this expert, who spoke to The Sun on the usual condition of anonymity because of his position.

The impact, experts say, will be both financial and environmental and will send the country crashing into a most frightening, unpleasant and mangled mess.

"It would create such a debt for Dominica," he told The Sun by telephone.

It was this debt that was foremost among the hotelier Gregor Nassief's concerns when he told The Sun in an interview last year that he was against the construction of a jet airport. Nassief, the owner of the award-winning Secret Bay Resort and the executive chairman of Fort Young Hotel, said then that such an undertaking was more than the country could afford.

"That is an EC$1 billion venture with astronomical maintenance and operating costs. What extent of subsidies will we have to pay for long haul jets to land here? With our current 55 per cent passenger load factor, why is it necessary? If we include 'afford' in our definition of 'need', I do not think we need an international airport, and it is interesting that the Tourism Master Plan does not mention one," the hotelier said at the time.

Of equal concern for the oversea-based development expert is the negative effect that moving the earth to build the runway will have on the environment of a country that promotes itself as "The Nature Island". Not only will it be extremely costly in monetary terms but to the country's ecosystem and image as well, he said.

"To build a runway would involve moving a million square metres of earth," he said. This raises its own challenges, not least of which is what to do with this much soil.

"If you put it in the ravines, it will clog the streams and you will have to build so many small bridges, it will add to the cost, and all this dirt, if it gets to the shoreline, it could destroy the reefs. So there's environmental (concerns) connected to breaking down the mountains to build a runway," he explained.

"If you are going to build an airport it will be for tourism. I still feel that Dominica's forte should be a niche market for eco-tourism (and) if this is going to be your product, an international airport isn't going to help you," he added.

The environmentalist and hotelier Arthie Martin has also argued that an airport can't be seen in isolation and must take the entire economy into consideration.

"We cannot be building an international airport for just tourism," Martin told The Sun. "Why do we want to build an international airport? Is it for the people who come once a year for carnival? That is not enough."

In any event, Martin contends, before any thought is given to such a venture, policymakers and practitioners must first agree and development a "quality product" that sets the country apart, one that will attract high spending visitors. Even then, he says, a jet airport will be unnecessary.

"Airports, if you build it they (visitors) won't necessarily come and if they come, they don't necessarily stay. So you better have a damn good product for people to come."

In the 2014 interview with The Sun, Nassief suggested that a more prudent and feasible alternative would be to work closely with carriers that fly to the international airports to the north and south of Dominica – Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Marteen and Puerto Rico – to develop more favourable connection schedules. Martin shares this view, telling The Sun that many of the airports in the Eastern Caribbean operate below capacity and Dominica will be no better.

Without the required traffic the authorities will have to pay airlines large subsidies to airlines to land here, the hotelier says, and without the proper strategy there will be little to no traffic.

"…they're even trying to say another reason we need an international airport is for cricket. Are you crazy? Are you mad?"

The experts suggest that the monetary and environmental costs involved make an international airport an unrealistic and self-deluding fantasy, and while it's a cherished aspiration and ideal for Dominicans at home and abroad, it's time to stop dreaming, it's time to wake up.


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