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$44m Exuma Airport 'To Tender In Two Weeks'

By YOURI KEMP

A senior government official yesterday said the works package for the $44m redevelopment of Exuma International Airport will be put out to tender within the next two weeks.

Algernon Cargill, director of aviation, told Tribune Business ahead of next week's Exuma Business Outlook conference that the scope of works will be released imminently, including both the terminal redevelopment and runway extension.

He said the government plans to make Exuma airport "the best in the Caribbean, and we plan to replicate the same airport design in Exuma for North Eleuthera".

Mr Cargill added that the viability of The Bahamas' Family Islands airports, and their ability to meet global standards and receive international flights, is vital to keeping the country's tourism prospects alive - especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

He confirmed that an upgraded airport is now being designed for Long Island at Deadman's Cay by Bahamian architect, Gus Ferguson, with the project costs pegged at $15m.

Mr Cargill added that another airport is being constucted on Great Harbour Cay in the Berry islands at a cost of $5m, with a Bahamian contractor spearheading the works for both the terminal and runway development.

"Airports are the gateway for tourism, and we want to ensure that The Bahamas remains competitive and rival those other airports globally," Mr Cargill said. "We want to ensure that these airports are viable for at least 20 years into the future."

He added that the government was still working with Canadian-based Stantec Consulting Group in revamping The Bahamas' 28 Family Island airports because they are "global experts on airport design".

Dionisio D'Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business pre-Dorian that the government has allocated just one percent of the $200m needed to upgrade the 28 airports in this year's budget.

He told Tribune Business that the $2m provided for the 2019-2020 fiscal year highlighted why The Bahamas must urgently "fix the model" for airport maintenance as the already-strained Public Treasury "is unable to carry the load".

Mr D'Aguilar said the government was looking to potentially roll-out the so-called "NAD model" to major Family Island airports, given that all are suffering from a lack of operational and capital improvement funding.

This structure, which involves a private sector entity taking over an airport's management and financing, has already been adopted at the Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) with the Nassau Airport Development Company, and the minister said the government's financial constraints give it no alternative but to look at similar public-private partnerships throughout the nation.

While aviation consultants, Stantec, estimated in 2013 that a $180m total investment was required to bring all Family Island airports up to international standard, Mr D'Aguilar said these costs had likely escalated to "very much north of $200m".

All 28 airports remain under the control and management of the state-owned Airport Authority, with travelling passengers contributing nothing towards maintaining infrastructure vital to the tourism industry and inter-island commerce.

"The issue at many of our Family Island airports is a lack of funding for operations and capital improvements," Mr D'Aguilar told Tribune Business. "So the government is considering the implementation at some of the key Family Island airports of a business model similar to the one we have at LPIA, where we have an entity that manages that specific airport and raises funds through the implementation of a passenger facility charge.

"None of our Family Island airports charge a passenger facility charge. I don't know of any international airport that does not charge a passenger facility charge. The business model at airports recognises the users of the airport pay for its use, but we don't deploy that at Family Island airports, so they don't have sufficient funding in place to fund operations and provide the necessary upkeep when needed."

Acknowledging that this had resulted in The Bahamas possessing some of the cheapest airports in the Caribbean to fly into, Mr D'Aguilar said this had created an imbalance that needed to be addressed if this nation is to bring its aviation ports of entry up to world-class standards.

Using the Miami to Nassau route as an example, he revealed that airline ticket prices typically contained around $154 in total fees. While around $60 was incurred on the US side, the remainder on this end was made up of NAD's charges ($48); Bahamian departure taxes ($29); and a $7 security fee with the remainder being value-added tax (VAT).

While similar fees and charges may not be imposed at the same level in the Family Islands, Mr D'Aguilar said additional income streams were essential to address the Airport Authority's "very limited funding for capital improvements and equipment upgrades" and "keep it on the cutting edge".

"The process has begun for us to turn our airports into self-sustaining businesses," he told Tribune Business. "Once we've done North Eleuthera and Exuma, we will bring attention to those airports receiving serious traffic and set up a business model that allows for sufficient revenue to upgrade and maintain them. We need to put that structure in place.

"I feel that we're leaving money on the table that could be used to maintain them. We need to fix the business model. The public purse is not going to be able to carry the full load. The travelling public can expect, in the near term, to commence paying a passenger facility charge. I'm hoping that at Marsh Harbour we can achieve that in the near term.

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