Regional transportation in the Eastern Caribbean is at a crisis level, declares President of the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) Dr Gene Leon, who is pleading with Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders to take decisive and unified action to address this plight.
This comes as officials of the Barbados-headquartered financial institution disclosed that they were awaiting the preliminary findings of a study aimed at influencing urgent re-establishment of regular maritime transport to support the region’s food security goals.
Describing intra-regional transportation as a critical valve to the lifeblood for the development of Caribbean economies, Leon lamented the decline in regional transportation, which he said fell by a whopping 50 per cent between 2008 and 2018, and had worsened in recent times.
“[It is] a situation that is now at a crisis level in the Eastern Caribbean, where the demise of LIAT in 2020 meant a loss of airlift from an average of 500 weekly flights in 2019 to 50 flights in 2022,” he reported.
“CDB therefore views dependable and cost-effective transportation service as essential for the transformation of several of the region’s economies. Consequently, to safeguard the region’s future, governments need to take decisive and integrated action to reform the air transportation operating environment,” he said.
The CDB head suggested that those measures include rationalisation of the regulatory environment and for the authorities to address factors that contribute to the high cost of regional travel, as well as elements that hinder the seamless movement of people within the region.
He also said greater cooperation among regional airlines to improve inter-airline connectivity and to “reduce wasteful competition”, as well as greater collective political will when it comes to policies governing regional travel.
Leon was addressing the CDB’s annual news conference on Wednesday, which was held under the theme Creating the Best Future for the Caribbean.
He explained that transportation should be seen as an ecosystem, noting that in addition to providing the assets required, there will need to be financing and effective legal framework and regulatory environment.
“There is the collaboration, the connectivity, the networking that would need to be ensured to be able to make it work, there is the demand for the services that needs to be adequate and appropriate, there is the costing and management that need to be done such that it’s operating efficiently,” he said.
Declaring that air connectivity was a “global public good”, Leon added “Then you have to have the political arrangements in place that would say we are all benefiting from this. Networks cannot exist in segments. Networks have to exist in their entirety.”
Stating that the region “cannot go forward” without solving the current transportation problem, he insisted that whatever solution was forged it must be cost effective for all citizens across the region.
At the same time, Leon cried shame on Caribbean governments for not doing more to avoid their residents having to go through the United States in order to reach some of their Caribbean neighbours.
“It will require two steps or two phases. The first phase in my mind is very clear, we have a crisis especially in parts of the region where you cannot move from one country to the other without necessarily getting a visa to go through the US as a connecting point . . . That is a major problem not only for the people but equally for our heads of state, our governments because those people should be able to say ‘we reserve the right as citizens to be able to move across the region’.
“If we are citizens of the region why can’t we ask for that right to be able to move freely across the region. Transportation is a part of the CSME issue that we have to solve. So we need to solve this urgent part now and how we do it may or may not be optimal or efficient but we need to get a service going,” he explained.
He said the next step was to put a long-term plan in place for the use of “future technologies”, starting with the relevant research now.
“Why can’t we begin to task our researchers in the region and the diaspora at universities [to] explore the retrofitting of our small airlines with electricity-powered engines, hydrogen-powered engines? We don’t have the issue of travelling 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. We are talking about 100 miles, 200 miles, 50 miles; hopping across islands. Car technology already allows us to move,” said Leon.
He argued that this move would have far-reaching benefits including economic diversification, new skills and employment opportunities.