Caribbean stunted by absence of intra-regional travel
As Caribbean countries reel from the losses caused by the absence of critical intra-regional travel, stakeholders are calling on the region’s governments to take immediate action to resolve the issue.
“Having the regional capacity to move our people, our goods, and services around the region is more than just tourism. Tourism might be the greater part of it, but it is more than just tourism, it is of strategic importance for us as Caribbean people to be able to move about,” laments St Lucia’s Minister of Tourism Dr Ernest Hilaire.
Having lost over 50 per cent of the regional travel into his country since the demise of Caribbean carrier LIAT, Hilaire has called on the heads in the region to recognise this move as one of strategic importance.
“Our governments must recognise we need to have that regional capability for good and bad times because of the strategic importance,” he argued, pointing out that any talk of a Caribbean identity is “just talk” if the people can’t move among themselves.
He made reference to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when the private sector pulled out of the region.
“When times are good, the private sector is flourishing, and returns are good, they (private sector) will be there, but the moment that hard times come, just like what happened in COVID, they are not going to be there. Private-sector businesses do not operate to make losses; there’re only so much losses they can sustain,” Hilaire said.
His concerns and appeal come at a time when the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) is also batting for regional connectivity and while tourism officials such as Jamaica’s Director of Tourism Donovan White complained bitterly on Twitter last Wednesday about experiencing eight hours of travelling from Puerto Rico to Jamaica instead of a one-hour hop.
“It really just requires governments in the region to collaborate on simple policies that make sense. Things like single airspace, single immigration policy for visitors, free movement of nationals and standardised trade tariffs,” he said.
He questioned the reasoning behind so many struggling airlines in the region flying around with 20 and 30 per cent load factors, yet there are frustrated leisure and business travellers who can’t find the service or have to pay dearly to transit through Miami, Florida, to the Caribbean.
White criticised Caribbean Airlines for not having a northern hub in Jamaica, along with their southern hub in Trinidad that connects all Caribbean islands with multiple routes and frequency daily.
“Why don’t Cayman Airways, Bahamas Air, Inter Caribbean, Arajet, Skyhigh all have one alliance to serve the region?” White asked.
In fact, St Lucia said the absence of a regional carrier has had significant impact on travel to their country, and the tourism minister went as far as saying he missed LIAT.
“In 2019, we were at about 83,000 regional travellers to St Lucia, approximately 45,000 by air and the rest by sea, mainly the ferry service between the French territories and Dominica,” Hilaire told The Sunday Gleaner.
However, he said at the end of August this year, they were at 31 per cent of what they were in 2019. He said in terms of air, they had just over 40 per cent of visitors, and in terms of sea, they received about 20 per cent, “so it just tells the impact regional air travel has on tourism in St Lucia. When I look at the numbers up to August, it’s just about 25,000 people when we should be about 43,000.”
St Lucia is a leading destination for regional travellers. The losses were evident in the summer during the staging of their carnival, which attracted 10,000 visitors, the majority from North America and Europe.
“If we had the level of arrivals from the region, as we did in 2019, it would have been our biggest carnival ever,” said Hilaire.
The issues being faced by the region go back as far as 2012, when the Caribbean governments were blamed for the long delays in granting low-cost carrier REDjet permission to start flying to several destinations.
An article in Dominica News Online reported that the Centre of Asia Pacific Aviation suggested that governments should shoulder some of the blame for Redjet’s demise.
“REDjet’s failure to execute a low-cost model in the Caribbean reflects the long-standing realities of governments in the region refusing to fully liberalise to allow any meaningful competition in the market,” said the 2012 article.