The British Virgin Islands government announced this week that it has accepted a bid from a Chinese company to expand its airport, allowing major U.S. carriers to skip over St. Thomas and serve the BVI directly.
Premier D. Orlando Smith is quoted on the BVI government website saying the project is needed to bolster tourism, which is 62 percent of the aggregate economic activity in the British territory. It will lengthen the existing runway from 4,645 feet to 7,100 feet and make way for direct flights from the U.S. mainland and Latin America. Currently, U.S. carriers say the runway is too short for large commercial flights.
It is unclear what the impact will be on tourism in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Beverly Nicholson-Doty, USVI Tourism commissioner, was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment.
David Mapp, acting executive director of the USVI Port Authority, said the V.I. Port Authority has concerns about the “potential loss of approximately 150,000 annual St. Thomas emplacements at the Cyril E. King Airport” heading for the BVI, but has “no official position for or against any ongoing tourism related development within the region.”
“Obviously, the V.I. Port Authority keeps abreast of all such new development in the region and plans accordingly in order to remain competitive and hold our position in this market.”
There was no reply to follow up questions posed through the Port Authority’s public relations office about the amount of travelers passing through St. Thomas on the way to the BVI or about how the authority plans to remain competitive. However, VIPA has consultants working on the design of an upgrade of the Cyril King Airport on St. Thomas.
The Terrence B. Lettsome International Airport is located on tiny Beef Island just off of Tortola, the largest and most developed of the British Virgin Islands. It serves all of the BVI, including Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost van Dyke.
The BVI has been talking about expanding its airport for years. In the announcement this week, it made no mention of visitors coming to it through St. Thomas. Rather, it said the expansion project became vital when the link between the U.S. mainland through Puerto Rico was cut.
A commuter service, American Eagle, had been providing small planes to carry passengers from Puerto Rico to other Caribbean islands until that service was discontinued a few years ago. There were as many as 12 flights a day into Beef Island from Puerto Rico, according to the announcement.
The BVI government said it chose China Communications Construction Company for the expansion project, the low bidder at $153,432,572, “after a lengthy procurement process” that had finally come down to CCCC and one other company.
Negotiations on the contract between the government and the company are expected to take three months, according to the statement. It did not give an estimate of how long the actual work is expected to take.
In 2004, the Beef Island airport underwent a $55 million renovation, according to Wikipedia.