The idea of a new airport for western Cape Breton has stirred up a lot of conversation. Not all of that conversation has been based on facts. This one is.
While there are pockets of economic growth, Cape Breton continues to struggle in many respects – between 2011 and 2016, the island’s population decreased by over three per cent. Employment growth is sluggish, the population is aging, and far too many people are struggling.
Tourism, on the other hand, has been booming, offering a beacon of hope and opportunity. It’s not hard to see why – the island’s natural beauty, irresistible culture, and incredible tourism opportunities are drawing people from around the world. In Inverness County, average room nights sold from 2016-18 are up 33% compared to 2012-14 – that’s massive growth.
By offering commercial air service to western Cape Breton for the first time ever, this proposed airport would open the world up to a tourism hub that stretches all along the western coast of the island. Visitors, especially those traveling from outside Canada, value convenience above all else when planning their vacations. If they have to land in Halifax and drive at least three hours to reach western Cape Breton, many of them won’t come at all. That is time that could be spent on short excursions within Cape Breton, visiting and spending in our communities. For those who do come, those hours spent driving are a massive missed opportunity. They could be spending more time and money in Cape Breton, but right now they aren’t.
There is an argument to build up the Port Hawkesbury airport for commercial service. We must ask ourselves: why hasn’t this happened thus far? The answer is simple: it’s because the demand has not been there. Right now there is a demand in western Cape Breton. Through April 2019, room nights sold in Cape Breton are up 12% over the same period last year.
This is what a new airport would mean for the area during the first five years of operation: over 600 direct and indirect jobs; nearly $43 million in economic activity; over $6 million in direct tax revenue to the federal and provincial governments.
That last figure directly connects to another flawed question that’s been raised about this project – wouldn’t this money be better spent on fixing roads and hiring doctors? The truth is that the money earmarked for this infrastructure project cannot be spent on roads and doctors – that’s not how government budgeting works. If the money isn’t spent in Cape Breton, it will be spent somewhere else.
Where the airport project can help fix roads and hire doctors is in the $6 million in tax revenue that will be generated and invested back into the community. Those are real, tangible dollars that currently don’t exist.
This project is about so much more than airports and golf. It’s about the restaurant that will welcome new customers; it’s about the bed and breakfast that will have new visitors; it’s about the person who’s been struggling to find a job for years finally having one.
Most of all, it’s the promise of something better. This airport can be the beginning of another chapter in our tourism story. We can’t let false divisions and bogus arguments blind us to the simple fact that this would be good for the economy and the people of western Cape Breton.
Tourism consultant and the former CEO of Destination Cape Breton