Friday, January 28, 2011

Tourism or Development?

UNESCO is scheduled to deliver its third opinion on establishing an airport in Rio Amarillo, Honduras in June, but Nelly Jerez, the Tourism Minister, isn't going to wait for that opinion for guidance. She announced yesterday that the government would go ahead and fast track the construction of an airport at Rio Amarillo to be finished in 2012. We've outlined elsewhere some of the politics of this decision.

Jerez announced that the Institute of Anthropology has approved the move. Jerez stated unequivocally
"It will not cause any damage to the ruins of Copan. Therefore we'll go ahead and build the Copan airport."

Really? We've already pointed out that both UNESCO, and several previous incarnations of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH) believe the aircraft engine noise would, over time, damage Copan if the airport was built at Rio Amarillo, but Jerez isn't waiting for the UNESCO report in June. Maybe that's because the previous two UNESCO reports strongly advised against building an airport in Rio Amarillo.

Jerez's announcement comes amidst UNESCO re-evaluating Honduras's treatment of another world heritage site in Honduras, the Biosphere of the Platano River. UNESCO is concerned about environmental degradation within the biosphere. It also has questions about possible effects on the biosphere of three recently approved dam projects on the Rio Patuca, or at least, that's how the Honduran government is spinning it.

Why is Jerez rushing this through? To support Tourism's initiative to bring tourists to Copan for the Maya "end of the world celebration" in 2012. Jerez, quoted in today's Tiempo, said
"The [Maya] prophecies of Copan and the end of the Maya calendar in December 2012 are opening the doors so that Europe will come to our country."

She plans spectacles with concerts and other performances both inside and outside the archaeological park.

So what are the costs and benefits of this decision, because any decision involves trade offs.

The benefit of building an airport in the region are tangible. Right now it takes 4 hours to drive from San Pedro Sula, with the nearest airport, to Copan Ruinas, the town where the ruin is located. This means thousands of tourists who visit Honduras cannot make the trip. These tourists are mostly cruise ship passengers whose tour includes a stop at the Bay Islands and Puerto Cortés, usually for 24 hours or less.

The propsed airport is designed to host turbo-prop 50 passenger planes similar to those in use today between Roatan and the mainland. Cruise ships range from small (50 passengers) to enormous (4000+ passengers). Carnival Cruise lines ships, which call at Roatan, all hold 2000 to 4000 passengers. If 10% of the passengers choose an option to fly to this new airport and tour Copan, this would require 4-8 round trip flights between Roatan and Copan daily. By comparison, there are currently only 3 round trip flights daily between San Pedro Sula and Roatan, none of them non-stop. Add the San Pedro Sula (to support local tourists and those docking in Puerto Cortés) and Tegucigalpa airports into the mix and you need tens of round trip flights daily in and out of this new airport.

No one has explained where the the airplanes and staff necessary to fly in and out of the new airport will come from. If you build it, they will come? There's been no public explanation of how the government will handle concessions to fly there, nor where the operations budget for the airport will come from, or how it will be operated. Is private industry going to fill the gap? Where are the committments?

Cruise ships don't dock every day. What will these private airlines do the other days, when there aren't sufficient passengers to financially justify all these flights? Or does the Honduran government envision this working on a charter model, with the cruise lines chartering planes to fly to the new airport, in which case the question becomes, where will the planes come from, since they don't currently exist in the country? Who will set up and finance these charter companies?

You see the problem? The business case for how this will operate financially, to pay for the airport its operations, and that of the air service companies, has not been made or discussed.

These, then are the advantages: greater access to the ruins of Copan than exists now and tourism related development around it. What is Jerez giving up with this choice?

Jerez is making the decision to not develop the second largest Maya city in Honduras for tourism, ever. While the argument advanced in favor of the airport is that the runway itself will not destroy any ruins, that's a red herring; the main acropolis of the Rio Amarillo site is less than 100 meters from the planned runway. Have I mentioned these planes are loud? Tourists won't come to a place where deafening noise is part of the experience many times a day. It would be irresponsible to excavate and consolidate the ruins since they would certainly degrade over time from vibration and be subject to the corrosive fumes of airplane exhaust. The Rio Amarillo ruins won't be developed. Tourists will have no reason to spend additional time in the region. Honduras forfeits those additional tourist dollars.

The Rio Amarillo location only serves tourism development at Copan, not the wider economic development of the the department of Copan. So Jerez is focusing just on tourism at Copan, which is her purview, rather than the wider economic development of Honduras. She says she would support building the La Concepción airport only if there's enough money to be found after building the Rio Amarillo airport. Perhaps she should take a larger view? As we pointed out in our earlier post, the La Concepcion location can contribute to both the tourism development of Copan and the wider economic development of the same region for about the same cost.

Santa Rosa de Copan is a business center in Honduras. It is one of two centers of Honduras's world famous cigar industry. Many world-class cigars are either made in this part of Honduras or made from tobacco grown in this part of Honduras. Yet there is no way for its businessmen to interact easily with people outside of Honduras. Companies are forced to establish offices and warehouses in San Pedro Sula, with its local airport, and more reliable communications and electricity, rather than keeping their money and jobs in the region. This keeps development centralized, focused on the larger cities of Honduras rather than spread out; it exacerbates the differences between the cities and the rural areas of Honduras.

The advantage of the La Concepcion location for an airport is that serves equally well the development of tourism to the ruins of Copan, being only 29 km away, and the economic development of the whole Department of Copan. Its a much more sustainable economic model because airport passenger traffic is increased with demand from both tourists and businessmen. In turn, that demand provides a more sustainable model for regular air service to the region, reducing risk for the private businesses that choose to operate such service.

Jerez's announcement is the triumph of politics and short term gains over the long term development in Honduras, and the continued overemphasis on the Maya ruins of Copan as a driver of development in the region, as documented so eloquently by Dr. Dario Euraque, among others.

Jerez is advocating an unbelievably short-sighted decision that only serves the political and economic interests of those focused exclusively on Copan Ruinas.

An airport should be built in the region; just not the one at Rio Amarillo.


John (Juan) Donaghy said...

It's even more complicated.
Juan Orlando Hernandez, President of the National Congress and deputy from Gracias, Lempira, is talking about four airports in the west - Rio Amarillo, Concpción, Cucyagua, and - where else - Gracias.

Supposedly he sold 70 manzanas outside Gracias for the project to the tune of two million dollars.

RNS said...

I had not heard this. Honduras cannot afford to build and operate all these airports, except very long term, so they will be financed with more international debt.

Again, cui bono?

The rumors about politicians targeting these airports on lands they, or members of their families own, resonates with stories I've heard about people involved in previous approvals of Rio Amarillo owning part of the land.

Does corruption like this suprise anyone?

KVL said...

Perhaps another way to think about the issue is by focusing on protection of the Rio Amarillo site: what is the geographic extent of UNESCO's recognition of Copan? Does UNESCO consider 'Copan' as within the boundaries of the archaeological park?? The 2009 UNESCO decision urged the State to submit limits on the World Heritage site's "potential buffer zone". I wonder (1) what has become of this buffer zone, (2) the extent to which generations of academic research on ancient political economies, boundaries and subsistence (specifically at Copan, and elsewhere) has informed both the buffer zone size or airport location generally, and (3) if the airport and surrounding infrastructure (i.e., hotels, restaurants, transportation, etc.) will be sustainable after the one-time, one-day (one-second!) event in 2012.

4. Urges the State Party to officially submit the limits of the World Heritage property and its potential buffer zone, in light of the requirements of the retrospective inventory;

RAJ said...

The Rio Amarillo site is not included in UNESCO's declaration of Copan as a World Heritage site. For that reason, the UNESCO advisory opinions center on impacts on Copan from installing an airport close enough to potentially cause serious damage through vibration.

Rio Amarillo is, however, a part of the cultural patrimony of Honduras, which is, by law, supposed to be protected, managed, and presented for the good of the people of Honduras. That good has not in the past included destroying major archaeological sites without investigation. Of course, there have been investigations of the Rio Amarillo site, which have shown it has great importance as a Classic Maya satellite of Copan. For this reason, the Institute of Anthropology previouls opposed the Rio Amarillo site.

While the question of the extent of the UNESCO World Heritage site at Copan is a separate issue, as you note, declaration of a World Heritage site involves the state committing to creating a management plan in which various zones are defined. There has been a plan in place; revision of the plan began some time ago, including definition of buffer zones; it is entirely up to the state of Honduras how widely it would define those buffer zones and on what grounds. The 2009 UNESCO report might be taken as encouraging a very large buffer zone that would include Rio Amarillo, but it is not strictly necessary to do that to protect Rio Amarillo itself. What is necessary is for the Institute of Anthropology to be able to provide research-based opinions that are respected and not subjected to political manipulation.

The sustainability of this airport seems to us to be quite questionable. The imperative to build this airport at this specific site may have more to do with current economic interests, like those John Donaghy notes above for an alternate site.