Perhaps it was inspired by the breezy weather last Thursday morning as Caricom leaders boarded a special water-taxi service at the Breakfast Shed in Port-of-Spain, but the conversation about regional travel was rekindled at the 34th Caricom Heads of Government meeting, this time around the idea of a fast ferry between the countries.
Inter-regional travel continues to be one of the more important agenda items to be continually paid lip service by Caricom’s leaders — and a key sticking point when it comes to the differences between the countries’ economies. But travel intra-regional has long been identified as a crucial issue.
As recently as February, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association identified inadequate airlift between the countries as an impediment equal to crime in its crippling of the potential of the tourism industry.
“Although the Caribbean markets itself as a region,” Perry Christie, Prime Minister of the Bahamas, warned, “the reality is that it happens to be the one region where internal or regional air and sea transportation is severely limited by the challenges in travelling from the US or Latin America to countries in the region.”
Despite that clarity and continuing discussions about the need for more affordable and regular travel between the Caribbean countries, the cost of such travel has remained high and the availability of flights to some islands either erratic or occasionally nonexistent.
The reality of past efforts at airline rationalisation and commercial competition does not hold much hope that a purely commercial project designed to build an efficient inter-island transport service can succeed. The failures of regional airline startups, the most recent of which was REDJET, suggest that the economics of airlift between Caribbean countries will need serious strategic thinking before commercial enterprise can be supported by the type of levels of regional travel necessary to reward such an initiative.
Perhaps the suggestion by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar for a fast-ferry service might begin to lubricate that process, lowering the cost of regional travel while priming the commercial pump for other startups to follow.
The existing economics of regional travel present Caricom with a clear chicken-and-egg dilemma. Prices on regional travel won’t drop until more people get used to moving between the countries, and the business opportunities simply won’t be there for an entrepreneur until people get far more comfortable with island-hopping.
The continuing problems which have bedevilled Liat and the regional complaints of unfair advantage levelled against Caribbean Airlines are the result of managing regional travel as if it were an immediately viable business instead of an economic incubator. More intra-regional travel makes for not just a ready flow of tourism throughout the region, but also for more trade and greater movement of professional skills.
If Caricom, through its own resources, cannot find the architects necessary to design a more effective system of regional travel, then it should seek such expertise in the Asia/Pacific regions where such initiatives have been pursued across similar geography, and in Europe, where widely differing cultures have been knitted together through efficient transportation.
The advantages are clear and the penalty for 50 years of failing at this all too present.