NEW YORK — Anguilla, a British colony known for its high-end resorts and wealthy clientele, is sending out feelers for a new international airport aimed at attracting nonstop flights from the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
Hubert Hughes, the island’s chief minister, spoke to NIMB during a recent press briefing in New York to mark Caribbean Week.
“We had a change of government in 2010, and since then, the economy has rebounded somewhat, so it’s been very attractive to foreign investors,” he said. “People are coming to us with project proposals, but our airport is still too small. We are now receiving applications from people who would like to invest in our airport facilities.”
Hughes said Anguilla’s Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport (formerly known as Wallblake Airport) has a 5,400-foot runway, but that the island needs a 9,000-foot runway in order to accommodate the big jets necessary for long-haul travel.
“We have several solid proposals before us,” he explained. “One is for the existing airport to be expanded. Over the years, we’ve had difficulty with the owners of that land, but this new project involves the owners in partnership with the developer.”
Another proposal involves agents based in St. Maarten who represent a Chinese investor group. The Chinese want to develop a new site at Bremigen, along Anguilla’s northern coast. Several years ago, French businessmen had planned to build an airport at that site — along with up to 5,000 hotel rooms — but that massive project was stalled by the British government on the ground that companies from the U.K. should have priority for major infrastructure projects on Anguilla.
New airport would ‘revolutionize travel’
Anguilla, a mostly flat island 16 miles long by three miles wide at its widest point, is home to about 13,500 people. Last year, just over 100,000 tourists visited Anguilla, a 6.8 percent increase over 2012 figures — and the number of day trippers coming by boat from nearby St. Maarten jumped by 20 percent from the year before, with even better numbers projected for 2014.
Yet total arrival numbers are still slightly below Anguilla’s best years, 2006 and 2007, which is why local officials are pushing for a new airport.
“It would really revolutionize travel to Anguilla,” said Haydn Hughes, the island’s tourism minister. “What the hotel industry is asking for is airlift. They want direct flights, and right now, 90 percent of Anguilla’s visitors come from St. Maarten — an 18-minute boat ride directly from the airport. We had to build our own wharf near PJIA [Princess Juliana International Airport] to facilitate easy movement from that hub.”
About 75 percent of Anguilla’s tourists come from the United States — principally New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts — and the other 25 percent are Canadians and Europeans.
The Anguillan government is hiring a British consulting firm, CEFAS, to prepare tender documents for the airport, which he said will cost $250 million to $300 million, depending on which option is chosen.
“Because we are a British overseas territory, the process must be open and transparent. We have four or five proposals in total,” Hughes said, adding that potential bidders are from the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates. “We would love for this process to happen as soon as possible, but it won’t start for another year.”
Hughes, who’s been Anguilla’s tourism minister since 2010, says his island has just over 2,000 hotel rooms and nearly as many villa rooms — with average rates exceeding $700 per night. Occupancy is highest in December, January and February.
But Anguilla could easily double capacity; all it needs is additional airlift, he said.
“We could handle a million passengers,” Hughes told us. “A lot of airlines would prefer to fly directly to Anguilla, even if they have to shuttle people over to St. Maarten and neighboring islands, because Princess Juliana Airport in St. Maarten is maxed out.”
Puerto Rican traffic has declined
At present, St. Maarten accounts for 90 percent of the air volume to Anguilla. The other 10 percent of passengers arrive on nine-seater planes from San Juan via Cape Air, Tradewind Aviation and Rainbow Express, as well as on private aircraft from the U.S. mainland.
“When American Eagle was servicing the San Juan-St. Maarten route before the recession [in 2008], quite a few Puerto Ricans were coming, especially in late August and September. But Since American Eagle’s pullout, that has significantly declined,” he said.
Hughes added that JetBlue and Air Canada have already expressed interest in offering direct flights to Anguilla once the new airport is built; nonstop flights could even arrive from as far away as the Arab world, he said, most likely Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
Anguilla isn’t the only Eastern Caribbean island pursuing major airport projects.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is bracing for a boom in tourist arrivals when the country’s $260 million Argyle International Airport in early 2015.
The new facility, located on a 275-acre site on mountainous St. Vincent’s eastern coast, required the demolition of three large hills. Upon completion, it will boast a 9,000-foot runway large enough to handle Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets arriving from the United States, Canada, Europe and South America — a first for this nation of 32 islands.
“Where we welcomed just a few visitors by air each year now, we expect that those numbers will triple in the next two years once the international airport is opened,” said the country’s tourism minister, Cecil McKee, speaking at the Caribbean Week event in New York. “The terminal building is virtually complete and that has been handed over. We are now into an advanced stage of construction with the control tower.”
Argyle’s passenger terminal will handle up to 1.5 million tourists annually.
Nearby Dominica also wants to have its own international airport. The country’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerritt, said his government made significant progress on obtaining funds for construction of such an airport at Crompton Point during a visit to China last month. Talks are ongoing with Anhui Construction Engineering Group.
“We have always maintained that the taxpayers of Dominica cannot afford to pay for an international airport by themselves, and therefore we would require tremendous grant funding or an investor coming in and putting the bulk of the resources into an international airport,” Skerritt said.
In recent years, his government has focused on developing Melville Hall Airport as a short- to medium-term response to inadequate airlift into Dominica. Yet both the St. Vincent and Dominica airport projects have come under fierce criticism by opposition political parties in their respective countries as an extravagant waste of public funds.