IT is unfortunate that as a sitting parliamentarian, MP for Castries South Dr. Ernest Hilaire continues to mislead the public on matters of national importance in order to score cheap political points. His most recent offence of political heresy is the clear misrepresentation of the Virgin Atlantic Issue. Dr.Hilaire clearly has not researched the numbers well, because had he done so, it would have revealed that Allen Chastanet as Minister of Tourism never had a budget of $250 million over the five years he served in the position.
Further, the figures which he used to indicate the subsidy spend of other Caribbean islands to Virgin Atlantic are unverifiable since the islands would have signed a confidentiality clause to safeguard the sensitivity of commercial information. The confidentiality clause was never signed by St Lucia as we have never reached an agreement with Virgin Atlantic. And why would responsible governments around the region share this information with Hilaire and open up themselves to further requests from other carriers who may be disadvantaged by the subsidy to another airline? So, another deliberate untruth.
Sorry Dr. Hilaire the right precedent has been set by government respectfully saying no to Virgin Atlantic’s request for subsidy. It is clear to the industry that we are interested in a sustainable business approach as it relates to flights coming to St Lucia. While the government of Saint Lucia supports sharing the financial risk for startup flights, we are of the firm belief that airline routes after two or three years of government support should become financially viable.
In the last 8 months, Saint Lucia has attracted eight new weekly flights with seven directly from Miami and one from Chicago, starting December 19. We are proud that none of the above-mentioned attracted Minimum Return Guarantee (MRG).This demonstration of confidence by other carriers in our destination makes it even more difficult to justify subsidies to any carrier at this time. Like those carriers, I believe in the power of the St Lucian brand, the hospitality prowess of its tourism professionals and the legend of its natural beauty.
The case before us is one that requires critical analysis and not narrow political views as expressed here by Hilaire. It would be difficult to spend 20 percent of our marketing budget for a return of 7 percent of our global passenger arrivals especially when other airlines are planning their growth strategy for St Lucia without the need for subsidies.
Moreover, the aspiration of a regional approach is most ideal in circumstances such as these, but it must also be appreciated that the Caribbean does not have the best track record on the whole subject of integration and functional cooperation. I must highlight that despite our attempts to arrive at a regional consensus on the Virgin matter, we appreciate that our sister Caribbean islands are in a different place in their development of tourism and more importantly airlift capacity. Thankfully on this occasion, St Lucia has the option to say no.
We feel further justified as in consultation with the local private sector on Saturday July 26th, the overriding consensus was that the level of investment required to keep the Virgin flight into St Lucia is burdensome on national tourism marketing budgets. While as an industry both the private and public sectors would have loved to keep the Virgin flight flying, we appreciate that as an industry a better return on investment can be attained. It was a clear business decision in the best interest of St Lucia.
As indicated by me publicly, we continue to be open to further dialogue with Virgin Atlantic with a view to arriving at a mutually beneficial corporate relationship.