Major Election Issue: Gregor Nassief Against the Idea of Constructing an International Airport
He'll work tirelessly to direct people here, he'll go to the end of the earth to get visitors here, but there's one thing Gregor Nassief won't do. Not now, not in the foreseeable future.
"I am also not in favour of an international airport."
The construction of a jet airport has been debated here for several decades, particularly at election time, with the various political parties promising to deliver what has, to this point, been an elusive dream. The proposed sites have varied from the centre of the island to Woodford Hill Bay to Wesley, depending on which party makes the pledge.
Last December, the prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit announced that the Chinese company, Anhui Shui An Construction Group, was looking at a proposed site in Crompton Point. A delegation from the company was in Dominica at the time and a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), he said, was before the government for consideration.
"That delegation is here to visit the site, to review documentations that we have on the Crompton Point site which was advised as being the only suitable site for an international airport in Dominica. Once we are satisfied with the contents of the MOU, we shall proceed with the signing of the MOU. That company will provide us with a conceptual design of the airport. Once we have that, we will engage the firm in further discussions as far as cost is concerned," the prime minister was quoted as saying in a Government Information Service release.
The tourism minister, Ian Douglas, in an interview with The Sun, has reiterated the administration's determination to construct the jet airport.
"The prime minister has made it clear about his plans to construct an international airport and I can say that our party, because of its relationship (with friendly donors) is the only party that can build an international airport in Dominica," Douglas boasted.
The United Workers Party (UWP) is also warm to the issue of building an international airport. The administration of Prime Minister Edison James (1995- 2000) bought land, drew plans and was determined to build the airport but these plans did not materialize since the UWP lost the 2000 general election. Now the UWP, led by Lennox Linton, has made the building of the airport as a large part of its campaign pledge for the 2015 general election.
But Nassief, the owner of the award-winning Secret Bay Resort and the executive chairman of Fort Young Hotel, has told The Sun that such an undertaking is more than the country can 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 in an exclusive interview.
The prime minister has said Dominica could not borrow the money to finance the project, adding that he would depend on "benefactors" to provide as much as 80 per cent of the funding.
"We know for a fact that Dominica will not get a loan to build this airport; none whatsoever. Once we get the design we will know exactly and precisely how much this airport will cost and then we shall go to the benefactors who we have been speaking to for many years," he said.
However the financing is raised, the airport remains an expensive proposition, which is why Nassief suggests that a more prudent and feasible alternative is 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.
"As with several other Caribbean islands who live off of tourism like St. Barths and Anguilla, what we really need is an efficient airlift service to and from the different hubs. And this is why fixing LIAT and getting it to provide efficient and reliable service to its core routes is so important," he says.
Nassief, an open and vocal critic of the quality of service provided by LIAT, says the regional airline is critical to Dominica, and throws his support behind the country's decision to invest in the cash-strapped carrier.
"I believe Dominica's investment in LIAT was the right move – being almost 80 per cent dependent on one airline and not taking an ownership stake is not prudent. But at the end of the day, what really matters is using that ownership stake to influence LIAT and shape its future."
On average, he says, aircraft flying into Dominica come in just over half full, which means there are still a lot of available seats.
"The problem is more that we need to bring the supply and demand in sync in terms of schedules in order to maximize the linkages with our nearby hubs. And of course we do certainly need to introduce new airlift services to potential additional hubs, like St. Lucia's Hewanorra Airport, as well as Canefield-based connections to Guadeloupe and Martinique."