Improved Canadian airlift delighting tourism officials, regional travel still posing problem

CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority (ABTA), Colin James
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By Orville Williams

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The resurgence of air travel into Antigua and Barbuda from Canada, one of the country’s major tourism source markets, is delighting tourism officials – on the heels of a relatively good overall performance for the sector in 2022.

According to Colin James, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority (ABTA), while the total figures recorded last year did not hit the heights expected, the country managed to welcome just over 265,000 visitors, a couple thousand shy of its second-best year of 301,000 visitor arrivals.

The two major source markets – the UK and the US – flourished: the US beating its 2019 figures with 129,000 visitors – up five percent on what was its best year – and the UK also seeing an increase on its 2019 figures, providing 79,900 visitors.

On the flipside, airlift from Canada was hampered by the shelving of flights by Air Canada. The carrier announced in January last year that it was suspending flights to several territories including Antigua and Barbuda for a few months, before extending that suspension to October.

During that time, the burden was left on Sunwing and WestJet, who each maintained a weekly flight into the twin island state.

“You know, Canada opened very late in the season – like about November or so last year – and so [that market] was lagging a bit.

“The good thing now is Canada is back and is on fire. We have a flight every day of the week from Canada, whether it’s Sunwing, WestJet or Air Canada, you can travel to Antigua and Barbuda any day of the week. You can also fly direct from Montreal now with Air Canada and so, the Canadian numbers are really rocketing up right now,” James said during an appearance on state media yesterday.

“One major hotelier told me that [in] January, 60 percent of all his guests were Canadians, so we’re happy to see how the Canadian market is catching up quickly, and so we’re positive for this year going forward,” he added.

Meanwhile, the continued struggles with intraregional travel have also affected the country’s arrival figures for the third year in a row.

The long-serving LIAT 1974 Ltd shuttered its operations back in March 2020 due to sustained financial woes, worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, and its demise has left the region in tatters.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda has been on a drive to rebuild that ‘broken bridge’ with the establishment of LIAT 2020, but its plans are still yet to be fully realised.

James stressed that, considering the importance of regional travel to their goals and objectives, the Tourism Authority is keen on supporting efforts to fix the situation.

“[In] the Caribbean as you know, the main challenge is airlift, moving people, and so [that] market [also] did not perform as strongly as [it] did back in 2019.

“That is a major focus for us, to get the lift back, and so we’re keenly watching the developments with LIAT. We’re [also] working with all the other carriers that fly in this region, to make sure that we have the lift, because what we have seen, and every island is experiencing, is that the lack of regional lift has really hampered regional travel.

“Particularly for events [like] cricket, Carnival, you name it – whatever the festivals that take place in this region have all suffered, because we haven’t been able to have that lift to move people around. So, [improving the situation] is really a major part of our strategy,” he assured.

The Gaston Browne-led administration has sent a proposal to heads of government in the sub-region, seeking their buy-in to help scale up LIAT 2020 and improve air travel between countries across the region.

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