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Butch' Stewart's advice to Gov't

Big airlines itching to fly to Ian Fleming Airport

Thursday, January 10, 2013    

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JAMAICA'S most successful businessman has some common sense advice on how the Jamaican Government can stimulate the country's economy, in a year expected to be one of the toughest in recent memory.

Gordon 'Butch' Stewart, who has made his Sandals Resorts into the Caribbean strongest brand internationally, said Jamaica had found itself in a never-ending spiral of borrowing to pay off its debt, while not earning enough to invest in development.

"As we borrow more, the hole gets deeper and deeper and we have a debt that we can't pay off. In fact, our grandchildren won't be able to pay it off," he said.

But Stewart said Jamaica could begin this year to dig itself out of the situation by tackling some projects he described as "low-hanging fruits", and using the funds to come from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other multilateral sources which take their cue from the IMF, to invest in such projects.

Beginning today and over the next few weeks, the hotel mogul will outline these projects that he believes are "doable even in a difficult year as 2013 is expected to be".

Stewart confidently suggests that the Jamaican Government should move immediately to extend the runway of the Ian Fleming International Airport in Boscobel, St Mary, just east of the north coast resort town of Ocho Rios, St Ann.

He said the airport, named after the famous author of the James Bond spy thrillers popular with movie goers, had the potential of opening up north eastern Jamaica, particularly Ocho Rios, Port Antonio, Port Maria, Annotto Bay, Highgate, and beyond for tourism which would spur unprecedented development of the region.

"The Ian Fleming Airport has all the ingredients. It has international status with customs and immigration. A good deal of work has been done recently to the runway and the terminal. But that airport can only accommodate small, propeller-driven or business-style jet aircraft.

'The current runway is 4,780 feet long but it is too short. The bigger regional jet aircraft of between 55 and 100 seats, such as flown by American Airlines, Air Canada, USAIR, Jet Blue, and Delta, need a minimum of 5,700 to 6,000 feet.

It's not a great deal of work. Ian Fleming needs only an additional 800 or 900 feet, which is really not much, to accommodate those regional jets.

"I have talked to all these airlines and they can't wait. I can vouch that some of these airlines would fly in the week after it is finished," Stewart says.

He explains that people are encouraged to travel the simpler it is to do so. It is well known that people prefer to land at the airport nearest to their destination.

"As it is now, most visitors and Jamaicans alike who are travelling to the Ocho Rios and north eastern region, for example, have to enter or leave through the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, St James.

"Many people who would have come to beautiful Port Antonio don't come because of the distance. It's clearly one of the main reasons Port Antonio has not realised its vast potential for development," says Stewart.

"With commercial flights to Boscobel, Jamaica for the first time would have comprehensive airport facilities for arrival and departure for a large area for both citizens and guests alike. Given the excellent roadway, it is a nice drive from Boscobel to Port Antonio, similar to that from MoBay to Ocho Rios.

"As a project it is very feasible and well within our means. My guestimate is that it would take a mere US$2-million or $3-million investment to realise this enormous bonanza. This would be one of the finest returns on investment.

"In real terms, this is a relatively small amount of money and we can find it. I am sure it is available through the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) which collects some US$20 million a year for such purposes. And, if the Government doesn't feel up to it, Ian Fleming remains an excellent project for private investors.

"The benefits are immediate. It would drive up our stopover and the people of the area would see the development and jobs they have been clamouring for," Stewart posited.

He pointed to his hotel in Exuma, one of the islands of The Bahamas, noting that when he first went there, there was no jet airlift.

"Now we have Delta and Air Canada flying there and American Airlines touches down twice daily with their regional jets. Apart from making the place wealthy, we are providing a most wonderful service for the just under 6,000 people living there. They can now fly directly to Miami and on from there to other destinations in the US or Canada, literally from their backdoor.

"This (Ian Fleming) is the kind of project I refer to as the original low-hanging fruit. It's actually a no-brainer," Stewart adds.

Next week, Stewart looks at how the country can benefit from investment in university education.

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