There are investors willing to pump millions of dollars into a ferry service between Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, but changes must be made to the regulatory environment.
This is the assessment from Stephen Hobson, the leading businessman behind the planned ‘Marine Highway’ ferry project which is currently being negotiated with Government.
In an exclusive interview with Barbados TODAY Hobson, Chairman of the NSG Group said he was satisfied there was a “very good chance” of a multi-million dollar ferry service being developed in the region especially given the drive by Prime Minister Mia Mottley and her team.
However, he insisted that in order to for it to become a reality governments in the region will need to update their laws to allow for greater ease of travel of individuals and cargo.
“You can’t expect investors to risk their investment if the regulatory environment, in particular, is not optimised for everybody’s benefit,” said Hobson.
“We wouldn’t want to suggest to the governments that they are doing us some big favour by doing it. We think that this is all part of bringing the Caribbean closer together,” he said.
Pointing to the example of the European Union (EU), Hobson said “This is what we need in the Caribbean. We need to have freedom of movement of passengers, of vehicles and cargo.
“That is achievable, but only if you have a regulatory environment in which phytosanitary certification is recognised and things are put in place so that the container that rolls on in the country is already pre-cleared, so that when it gets to Barbados the container rolls off and it is delivered to the supermarket that evening.
“What we need is a willingness on the part of all the governments, and I believe it is there, to enact legislation that allows you, the owner of car registration so and so, to put that car on a ferry, go to St Vincent and drive off and drive around for a few days and buy whatever, get back on the ferry and get back to Barbados. We need your driver’s licence to be recognised and your insurance to be recognised in those countries, but we need you to get on that ferry with minimum or no hassle, show identity – passport in most instances,” he explained.
NSG Group of Companies is involved in project management with a focus on transport and infrastructural solutions. Chairman Hobson said while he understood governments would need to generate some revenue, the fast ferry and cargo ferry operations should be set up in a way that did not result in hefty taxes and fees.
“I am not proposing this be tax-free, but when you look at what a visitor from the US or UK pay when they come here on a cruise liner, I think something a little less than what they pay would be a contribution,” he said.
“What I would urge the governments to look at is, view this as a social service,” added Hobson, who indicated that the same level of subsidy provided to LIAT over the years would not be required.
As part of a plan to help lower the region’s massive agri-food import bill and ramp up food and nutrition security, Prime Minister Mottley is pushing for Bridgetown and Georgetown to establish a Barbados/Guyana food terminal, a mechanism that would enable swifter transportation of food produced in the region. Guyana would serve as a main food production hub while Barbados would act as a hub to transport agricultural produce between the island and CARICOM member states.
Describing the proposed passenger fast ferry as a “jumbo jet of the sea”, Hobson told Barbados TODAY it would require an even larger vessel known as a Ropax, to transport the cargo coming from Georgetown to Bridgetown.
He estimated that it would cost just over the US$100 million estimated by Professor Avinash Persaud, Chairman on the CARICOM Commission.
“It is a big undertaking, but I am also convinced that if there is the right regulatory environment it can offer so many new avenues and opportunities for people in the Caribbean,” he said.
Pointing out that he has already spoken to some investors, Hobson said: “You need to have a regulatory environment which allows the type of service that we want to be able to offer. We have the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). In theory, this new service would dovetail the objectives of the CSME.”
In an interview with Barbados TODAY earlier this month, Persaud indicated that once a final decision was made on the fast ferry, it could be implemented within two years.
It is understood that a dual-fuel engine vessel could be obtained by the end of 2024, but only if Governments were prepared to eliminate some of the bureaucratic processes and move swiftly with the negotiations.
Regarding a time-frame for the acquisition of a vessel, Hobson said it was possible in two years’ time, but said investors were insisting on Barbados and other regional states ensuring that regulation allows for hassle-free movement.
He said while governments may not be able to provide a lot of support, it would be up to the member states to put the right infrastructure in place, including upgraded security systems, to allow for the loading and discharging of passengers and cargo.
He also suggested that while the service would be private sector operated, governments could be an initial investor to get it started and then back out once it starts to become profitable.