Long without the capabilities to have direct flights arrive from far away lands, Dominica is hoping a new airport will turn things around for its tourism, trade, and economy. Can they pull it off without incurring debt?
For years, tourists flying into the off- the-beaten track to the tiny Caribbean nation of Dominica have been relying on island-hopping from neighboring islands using planes or boats to arrive at their destination.
While Dominica, known as “the nature island” of the Caribbean, has always had international flights from neighboring islands, the small nation couldn’t offer direct flights to and from Europe and Mainland U.S. — until now.
The buildout of a new international airport, set to be completed in 2025, will be a game changer for the small country that has been relatively difficult to access, opening up a world of opportunities for tourism and economic growth.
And in a hyper-competitive market like the Caribbean, a new airport that can transport tourists directly from lucrative source markets like Europe can change the status of a destination like that.
“The international airport development has been a longtime goal and dream of our government, because we know the importance to significantly grow the tourism industry, and improve the ease of doing business in Dominica,” said Denise Charles, Dominica’s minister of tourism, in an interview with Skift.
Samuel Johnson, CEO of the Dominica international airport development company, agreed it will all come down to air access.
“You can have the best attractions, the best hotels. and the best brands, but if it’s difficult to get to the island, it adds that much more friction to the journey of a visitor. And we’re an island in a chain of islands, so they could as easily land in any of our sister islands which are easier instead of ours,” said Johnson. “So we definitely think it’s going to improve several aspects of the country.”
There is no price tag yet for the project as the bidding is ongoing but some press reports pegged it at north of $220 million.
The airport which has been in the planning stages for several years is being designed by a boutique American company Landrum and Brown, specializing in airports and aviation planning. The new international airport will meet world-class standards and will be located nearby to Douglas Charles airport, which it may eventually replace, Johnson said.
Dominica expects that once the airport project officially starts with the groundbreaking, it will stimulate the overall economy in a major way.
“This has already started because we expect to see a boost in the construction industry. And in the actual construction phase, we will see an increase in direct jobs associated with the construction of the airport and also indirect jobs,” Charles said.
Indirect jobs include people that provide accommodations services, restaurant owners, and transportation services contributing to jobs in the economy and overall improving the business climate once Dominica has an international airport.
Hotels will also add jobs to the economy and plans are already underway to prepare the infrastructure for the influx of tourists a new airport will bring.
A New Tourism and Trade Frontier
Unlike the rest of the Caribbean region, Dominica’s coronavirus story is one of success.
The Caribbean island currently sits at Level one – low risk on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of Covid-19 travel recommendations by destination and is on the coveted UK Green List. That’s because Dominica has managed to contain Covid-19, without community spread and zero deaths.
It’s good news for an island that pre-pandemic, had been pursuing developments of hotels on the island, including a combination of major chains and luxury boutique hotels such as Marriott, Hilton, Secret Bay, and the currently open Jungle Bay and Cabrit Resort and Spa Kempinski.
In addition to increasing tourism, the international airport will help Dominica with the transportation of goods and trading.
Charles said Dominica has a lot of agricultural, locally made organic, and manufacturing products to offer including flora, a variety of crops such as bananas and dasheen some of which are traded in the region.
“One of our challenges has been getting it on international markets because of the time and it has to get there fresh and crisp for the markets. So that will definitely open up a lot of avenues for us in terms of trade, not only into the U.S. market but also into the UK market,” Charles said.
It’s too early to put a dollar figure to how much revenue the new airport will generate for Dominica, Charles said, but she believes it will be tremendous revenue. Based on the expansion the island is seeing with hotel plans, trade, jobs, and the opportunity for further investment into the country, Charles believes the possibilities are endless.
“It’s definitely going to transform our economy and increase our GDP (gross domestic product) significantly,” said Charles.
Building an airport is paying off with increased tourism to the Caribbean’s St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Loop news reported. Opening a new airport also changed things for the better in St. Lucia, a neighboring island of Dominica.
“St. Lucia is often looked at as a sister island of ours with many similarities including the same French connection culture wise and the French Creole common language in addition to English, but Dominica is a little bit more rugged and not as densely packed which leaves a lot of room for expansion,” Johnson said.
Building New Routes
To avoid a cold start once the new airport is completed, Johnson is working feverishly to start international flights from Mainland U.S. to Dominica as soon as possible including making upgrades to its current airport to facilitate this. He has reached out to Delta, JetBlue, Caribbean airlines and is in active talks with American, Johnson said.
“We have the view that we might not be able to accommodate the larger aircraft, but there’s new changes in technology where for example the Airbus A220, a smaller aircraft that is very effective at running long thin routes which Dominica initially would be,” Johnson said. “Because our long-term plan is to gradually increase our visitor arrivals during the buildout stage so that it transitions nicely into the international airport.”
Dominica is also actively working on active route development for the current and future airports, he added.
In preparation, the island welcomed its first American Airlines flight when an American Eagle aircraft operated by Envoy completed a proving flight into Dominica from Miami, Florida in June, Charles said. Proving flights are one of the final hurdles airlines face before obtaining an air operator permit to a destination.
Dominica is going to be a changing environment in terms of consumption, restaurants, entertainment, luxury transportation, and clothing that will attract a significant amount of visitors from Europe and Asia, said Missi P. Henderson, permanent secretary in the office of the prime minister.
With its new airport, Dominica is looking to attract tourists from the U.S., U.K, Asia and in particular France, all markets that are big to the country. Additionally, it’s looking to South America, Latin America, and other areas that love nature and nature lovers who love adventure, water sports, and swimming with whales, Charles said.
“Dominica is one of the top ten destinations for diving in the world and many people don’t know that,” said Charles.
Henderson said Dominica’s central location in the Caribbean makes it an ideal hub even for regional travel and they believe its airport will become the region’s new hub.
The airport will be built out in five phases, but because the request for bid proposals is currently ongoing the Prime Minister’s office declined to disclose how much the airport project is costing at this time.
However, in terms of financing for the projects, Henderson said the country considered several options for loans or grants. And to minimize debt for the country and its citizens, Dominica decided as a country to use its Citizen by Investment program (CBI) under the management of the Montreal Management Consultants Est., specializing in immigration and CBI for several countries, she said.
This has proven to be an innovative financing model which we’ve used for a number of our projects from Tropical Storm Erika in 2015, Hurricane Maria in 2017, and of course during this pandemic, Henderson said. And so “we’ve tested it in terms of our health centers, our housing, and the intention is at the end of the day when you have an airport, not to have any debt burden, and to have allocated revenues to run and operate the airport in a viable way,” she said.
The way Dominica’s CBI program works is very similar to the United States’ E-B5 Immigrant Investor Program fast-tracking citizenships for investors, where foreigners desiring to become citizens in Dominica through an approved foreign direct investment will then be given accelerated citizenship, said Johnson.
Vaccines and Working Remotely
As tourism slowly recovers, Dominica is taking advantage of the remote work revolution around the world right now, by offering a “Work in Nature” program allowing visitors to stay up to a maximum of 18 months on the island, with a selection of apartments of participating resorts to rent with reliable internet service, Charles said.
Dominica is currently in the midst of a massive vaccination drive with 40 percent of its target population inoculated.
Fully vaccinated tourists with proof of vaccinations are no longer required to quarantine if they arrive with a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours and take an antigen test at the Dominica airport on arrival which takes about an hour to process, she said.
Light clearing of land is beginning this week and new homes are being built for families who’ve been relocated to make room for the new international airport, said Charles.
Photo credit: The island of Dominica is hoping a new airport will elevate its tourism status in the Caribbean, Vision Chen / Flickr