By Dominic Fedee, Minister of Tourism
It is unfortunate that as a sitting parliamentarian, Castries South MP Dr. Ernest Hilaire continues to mislead the public on matters of national importance.
His most recent offence of political heresy is the clear misrepresentation of the Virgin Atlantic Issue. Dr. Hilaire clearly has not researched the numbers. Had he done so, he’d know that as tourism minister Allen Chastanet never had a budget of $250 million.
Further, the figures Dr Hilaire 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 such commercial information.
The confidentiality clause was never signed by Saint Lucia as we have never reached an agreement with Virgin Atlantic. And why would responsible governments around the region share this information with Dr Hilaire and open up themselves to requests from other carriers who may be disadvantaged by the subsidy to another airline?
The right precedent has been set by this government respectfully saying no to Virgin Atlantic’s request for a subsidy. It is clear to the industry that we are interested in a sustainable business approach as it relates to flights coming to Saint Lucia. While the government of Saint Lucia supports sharing the financial risk for start-up 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 eight 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, not hit or miss political mud-slinging. It would be difficult to spend 20% of our marketing budget for a return of 7% of our global passenger arrivals, especially when other airlines are planning their own growth strategy for Saint 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, Saint Lucia has the option to say no.
We feel further justified, as in consultation with the local private sector on Saturday July 26 the overriding consensus was that the level of investment required to keep the Virgin flight into Saint 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 Saint 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.
As for Dr Hilaire this is not his first attempt at misleading the people of Saint Lucia in his own political interests. Just recently in the House of Parliament, the Prime Minister had to set him right when Hilaire publicly asserted that the CIP figures were not included in the Estimates, when in fact the figures were clearly outlined in the document.
He has also told many untruths on the controversial tourism development at Black Bay by failing to acknowledge the former SLP administration sold acres of prime beach front land six days before the 2016 general elections, and below market value. This much can be gleaned from the development agreement signed by former Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony on May 31st, 2016.
The list of Dr Hilaire’s fabrications is quite long, and confirms my recent public characterization of him as a false prophet.