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#BTColumn – Ferry business in the Caribbean should be preceded by free movement of goods, people

by Barbados Today
12 min read

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.

By Alessandro Giustolisi

Since the MV Windward stopped sailing from Venezuela to Trinidad, St. Vincent, Barbados and St. Lucia at the end of the 1990s, the Caribbean region never had another passenger ferry providing service between the different islands, except for the French-owned “Express des Iles” which still maintains a passenger ferry between St. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe and occasionally other carriers between Antigua and Guadeloupe and a very short route between French St. Martin and Anguilla. 

All other ferry services offered in the region are between the islands themselves, like Trinidad and Tobago; Grenada and Carriacou, Petit Martinique; St. Kitts and Nevis; St. Thomas to St. John and St. Croix and St Maarten to St. Barth. These ferry services are just for domestic purposes and are mostly subsidized by their local governments. 

The Caribbean officials capable of resolving this issue simply meet and decoratively give empty statements regarding the subject and everything remains the same, that is, with no results. During the COVID-19 pandemic with the increase of cargo prices and fuel rates, there was an urgent need to reduce food imports from foreign countries, creating the possibility of getting food items including vegetables and fruits which are grown in the region at a much more reasonable price and easier logistical distribution to consumers. 

Air connectivity is a desperate situation, and it looks impossible to offer a one-way ticket between two islands, just a 30 or 45-minute flight for less than US$150 or US$200. In the next article I will explain motivations and solutions, but sea transport is actually nonexistent. 

For Caribbean people, it is very expensive to do business, and travel between islands. Worst yet, it is very difficult to ship goods from one island to the other if it is not the same country. As a result, our business people fly to Miami and buy mostly all their merchandise there or sometimes, depending on the product, use Trinidad as another option, since it has some small cargo ships to Grenada and St. Vincent. 

Today, most of the islands south of St. Lucia, including Barbados, receive most of their local food, vegetables and fruits from Trinidad and Guyana, while the northern islands get most of their products from Florida. Recently, there have been talks between the Barbadian and Guyanese governments to open a food hub in Barbados. This would be a very good initiative. 

However, I don’t really see how it can be implemented if there is no plan to organise shipping between the public and private sector and no investors for a ferry company. It appears as if no one government wants or can afford to invest in such an operation and there is no clear plan on how to facilitate such an operation, especially one that would facilitate the free movement of goods and people.

Until there is free movement of goods between CARICOM islands, goods coming from Florida or from within the CARICOM region will undergo the same process – that is customs fees and entry, brokerage fees, levies and port charges. The only difference would be the amount of duties charged. 

If the status quo remains the same, it will be difficult or near impossible for a private company to have an interest in financing a ferry service between the different islands, because the potential numbers of passengers would be very low and the fact is, they will have to comply with immigration and customs would not encourage it, especially if you want to carry your car or some trucks bringing commercial goods. 

On the other hand, should free movement of goods and people be implemented through all the islands, I’m sure some investors, especially from Europe or Asia, would invest and could bring their experience in establishing a reliable network.

Recently there was talk to import food products from the Brazilian northern state of Roraima via Guyana. However, if Guyana doesn’t build the road from Lethem to Georgetown, this will remain a dream since today, there are about two or three rivers in between with some balsa boats to cross and an unpaved road. 

One would assume that with all the oil extractions going on in Guyana, the government would invest in a good ferry service. The only good existing road from Roraima is to Venezuela, which could truck in products to the port of Puerto Ordaz or Guanta and ship to the Caribbean from there. But I must warn that the Roraima state has just limited Brazilian products since it is like an island not linked with the rest of Brazil because of the Amazon river. A better option would be to use the port of Belem, which has direct access to all of Brazil and even a cargo route, even via Suriname and Guyana.

I don’t believe in spending more money at all, to discuss this matter before the CARICOM free movement of goods and people is implemented. The same model is needed if we want to resolve the air connectivity in our region. If we want Caribbean people travelling more through islands and tourists as well, we must offer them an easy way to move via a domestic system. All concerns about security and crime between islands can be resolved by monitoring suspect individuals with a better exchange of information between the police force of each island, which today is easier since we have advanced technology. 

Having CARICOM as a united commercial block would count much more in all negotiations with other economic blocks, because today we are not attractive for foreign investors, but we remain just politically attractive in the aspect of the United Nations voting forums, which only benefit our political members but not the people on the streets. We can’t complain about not being taken seriously by the major players in the international arena if we do not strengthen our unity as a commercial block. Theoretically, it should not be that difficult a task, since we were all part of the UK, same laws, same language, same history except Suriname. We want to rejoin with Africa, fine, but we should consider rejoining ourselves first.

I’m sure as soon as our region opens, there will be some Italian, Norwegian, Japanese and UK companies proposing to finance a ferry system without the need for any island to subsidise it alone. We will need some ships doing cargo, some car ferries, and some passengers-only, depending on the routes. Actually, on some routes, perhaps there could be the possibility of having more operators. Our tourism could grow a lot looking at the case of Greece, Italy and Spain, where a large percentage of tourists plan some ferry routes like a mini cruise.

Just a few weeks ago, news came out of Guyana about a new ferry service destined to transport “high-value” agriculture and fish products from Guyana to Trinidad for food products. This was very strange, considering that there were announcements about deepening ties with Barbados, such that Guyanese products would have been redistributed from Barbados to the rest of the islands.  

This ferry, the MV MA Lisha, is a donation from the government of India and is said to be able to journey from Region One (Barima-Waini) in Guyana to Trinidad and Tobago in just 15 hours and other Caribbean countries. It is also said that the MV MA Lisha would be transported on a larger boat all the way from India to Guyana. I was informed by a former coast guard that this new ferry was not made to do ocean trips, especially in our region between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, which can have rough seas. 

If the MV MA Lisha is indeed transported from India on another vessel, then one could question the theory of its capacity to travel in our open waters, which could make us question its limits and potential. One can argue as well that this new ferry service taking Guyanese products to Trinidad, would allow Trinidad to have the monopoly of those products, as usual, and we in Barbados will have to continue to buy through them and any previous talks of using Barbados as a hub for food distribution would cease to exist. 

Please note, however, that the effort of this new ferry system is welcomed. We just want to ensure that it is also secure and understand as well that we can’t resolve the ferry system in a patchwork system, because these isolated investments are very challenging with an uncertain future. Planning all together, creating the legal framework first that is the free movement of goods and people, can pave the road to the only possible viable ferry system, with a company with a certain number of ships, ensuring schedules and safe vessels. 

A viable ferry system must be able to create a connection between more islands where people and business can rely on a stable, fixed bridge. Furthermore, what the ferry system needs is to enter into Caribbean people’s minds, similar to what LIAT represented for us, the sense of unity. Unfortunately, since its failure, we in the Caribbean don’t feel the same, and now all new airlines have lots of challenges replacing that space and regional travel mentality needs to be reset. With LIAT, you could travel anytime, send cargo, send a QuickPac. Today, you can’t do the same. 

To have a profitable ferry system, we should start with daily routes between Trinidad and Antigua – one via Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica and the other one via Tobago, Barbados, Dominica and some inter-island between Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent and St. Lucia. 

A cargo passenger should route between Guyana and Barbados and Trinidad to connect to other islands, too. Once implemented such routes could open the possibility, with the cooperation of the Venezuelan government, a route to the ABC (Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire) islands with intermediate stops in some Venezuelan ports like Margarita or La Guaira to make the route more viable, given the distance between Grenada or Trinidad and Bonaire. 

Another route I see in the future could be between Antigua and Jamaica to extend to Cuba and Belize, via Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and another one to Florida via Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. 

These routes would be a challenge because of the distance and possible viability in passenger and cargo numbers. Travel via the US ports may have immigration and customs issues, but with the right negotiations such issues could be resolved and bring everyone advantages, including the US. Without such an initial network, any isolated small routes without connecting with other ports and main routes have very low probability of working, but all gradually could work. I believe all these routes could all function within five and eight years, but at the same time, some ports must have the right connections to receive goods for export with a good road and trucking network.

To conclude, since these ships would be for local tourists and foreign people too, we should start now to create nautical and tourism schools where our young people could learn how to work on a ship in every department. Additionally, for our existing tourism industry, we need to train better-skilled staff with knowledge of at least two foreign languages and at least implement one foreign language at secondary school. 

Our English-speaking Caribbean region is actually small, low-populated and surrounded by very large Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries and some French and Dutch-speaking countries. So the need to speak a second language will be very important to interact at all levels to rejoin our regional partners in the Caribbean, Latin America and even Africa, where we could start a potential new bridge. Considering our mixed ethnic origins, this will bring our people and region to another level.

Without all these steps, it will be impossible to achieve an efficient ferry system like those in Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain and the UK. Ideally, we should have one since we are an archipelago of islands. 

Alessandro Giustolisi is a former travel industry executive and the owner and operator of Antillean Atlantic. ]]>

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