By Orville Williams
The government is dismissing the rumours and theories being spread about some of the passengers who arrived in the country aboard the inaugural Antigua Airways flight on November 1.
“We have heard the chatter, but we write it off to be nothing more [than] political chatter, a degree of, I would say prejudice, and even some racism as well,” Cabinet Spokesperson Information Minister Melford Nicholas told yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing.
More than 100 passengers disembarked the charter flight that departed Lagos on October 31, including airline officials and others representing the Nigeria-Antigua and Barbuda Chamber of Commerce.
And while a portion of these passengers were said to be vacationing and doing business in Antigua for the duration of their stay, others utilised the flight as a connection to other islands in the region – including St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago, according to reports.
Some of those who stayed in Antigua, however, were scrutinised in the public domain for their presence, which was described as ‘questionable’ and ‘controversial’, among other terms.
Among the criticisms bandied about were that some boarded the flight with no intention of immediately returning to their homeland, that some planned to spend just enough time in Antigua to be able to get into Canada without significant scrutiny from that country’s immigration system, and that others came to Antigua with plans to establish undisclosed business operations.
There were even suggestions that a female passenger – who is apparently pregnant and fast approaching her delivery date – intentionally came to Antigua and Barbuda to give birth, in a bid to secure rights to residency via her child.
In response to those criticisms, Nicholas pointed to the pilgrimage similarly undertaken in Antigua and Barbuda by people from other places and races, and the apparent hypocrisy being displayed in this situation.
He asserted that, while some visitors are welcomed near unconditionally, the West Africans are merely victims of how they look.
“The record will show that we have a number of tourists that come to these islands with backpacks, and there are a number of tourists who come and hodgepodge around in Airbnbs and live in a rustic environment, because they’ve come to explore Antigua.
“Maybe because of the hue of their skin, it doesn’t bother people who have similar skin hue, but the fact that they are people from West Africa who are coming here – from Senegal, from Nigeria, from Ghana and elsewhere – it is a bother to them.
“We’re not of that view and so, the objective requirement for the government is to ensure that we continue to support an investment in a new venture that has a lot of back-end benefits to it,” he said.
The Antigua Airways project – which is a partnership between the government and a Nigerian investor – marks the twin island nation’s first direct air connection to West Africa. But despite that status, it has been receiving constant criticism since it was first announced.
“The political chatter that is taking place is similar to other developments that previous governments have tried. At the same time when the Deepwater Harbour was contemplated, similar negative chatter was [rife] and the development was held up to ridicule, as it was with the Potworks Dam as well.
“So, there is a historical relation between the political chatter that is taking place now, and [the inability] to see the big picture.
“We continue to look objectively at what the government wants to achieve with this [connection to West Africa]. At a very top level, we see the need for expanding trade and commerce with that part of the world, [and] we see an opportunity for opening up new tourism markets and for markets for our products as well,” Nicholas said in that regard.
According to this week’s post-Cabinet report, “regular flights of Antigua Airways are to begin next month”, following the inaugural Independence Day charter flight.
The airline is also touted to play a potential role in bolstering regional connectivity through a yet-to-be finalised partnership with LIAT 2020.
The Cabinet spokesman talked up the government’s commitment to taking full advantage of the new connection to the motherland, declaring that if all should go well with the plans in place, the proof will surely be in the pudding.
“We cannot, at this stage, predict the economic viability [of the project]. If the investor, Mr Marvelous Mike and his team cannot make it work financially, then I guess there will be an opportunity for someone else to step into the space, but the economic opportunity exists because of the mutual air services agreement between us and Nigeria.
“Should [this venture] be successful and should the overture that it has already made with LIAT 2020 also come into being, then the economic benefits and the spinoff from that will be there for us to see in the future operational cycle,” Nicholas said.