Political heavyweights back campaign for airport near Inverness golf course

A group including several former premiers is backing a campaign to build a new airport in rural Cape Breton to support the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses.

The campaign has launched a website on why scheduled commercial air access to the community of Inverness, where the golf courses are located, would open up tourism and development around Cape Breton Island.

The campaign's website features messages in support of the project from former Nova Scotia premiers Darrell Dexter and Rodney MacDonald and former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, along with prominent business figures such as Annette Verschuren and Zita Cobb.  

The airport proposal has already drawn opposition from the town of Port Hawkesbury, an hour's drive from Inverness, and from the company that runs the Port Hawkesbury airport.

Michele McKenzie, a former deputy minister of tourism for Nova Scotia and former CEO of Canada's national tourism agency, is one of the people backing the creation of a new airport.

'Everyone benefits together'

She said the Inverness golf courses have already been proven economic drivers beyond their immediate location.

"When that first proposal was first being shopped around, I was the deputy minister of tourism and the official rules at the time were like 'no more golf courses,' because we thought we had enough golf courses, and I bought into that," McKenzie said.

"That particular development proved me wrong, that if you do this right, you can unlock incremental business."

McKenzie said she has heard concerns about competition possibly killing the nearby airport in Port Hawkesbury, but she said that isn't likely.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The Port Hawkesbury airport does not have scheduled commercial airline traffic, McKenzie said.

"We kind of get into these discussions and we start to see our neighbours as competition and that is absolutely not the case in tourism," she said.

"It's one of those industries where everyone benefits together, so it's really about an opportunity for the region."

The website cites statistics from a 2018 study by Destination Canada that says the country could double its tourism revenues over the next decade through the development of regional hubs.

What we've got growing in western Cape Breton is a really competitive tourism cluster.

- Michele McKenzie, former deputy minister of tourism

Ben Cowan-Dewar is chair of Destination Canada's board of directors and is a co-owner of the Cabot golf courses.

McKenzie said an Inverness airport would boost the local economy, create jobs and add to government tax revenues.

The website estimates the new airport would pay $6.4 million in taxes in the first five years.

"I believe that there's a huge potential there that we have an opportunity to tap through new air service," she said.

"What we've got growing in western Cape Breton is a really competitive tourism cluster."

Only 5 per cent of tourists come to golf

Studies show that tourists to Cape Breton travel around the Cabot Trail, hike and attend music events, McKenzie said.

Only five per cent arrive specifically for golf, she said, and air service would boost that and all of the other area attractions.

McKenzie said she doesn't have any details on where the airport could be located or how much it might cost.

The federal and provincial governments have said they are considering an application for government infrastructure funding for the project, but they can't release any details on applications that haven't been decided yet.