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Regional travel – a ‘no show’ at Caricom Summit


THEY were there. The Caricom Heads all visited Chaguaramas last week, but it was certainly not to talk about the pet peeve of St Vincent’s Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves that the fuel subsidy now being enjoyed by Caribbean Airlines through the government of Trinidad and Tobago ran contrary to the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas. As a matter of fact the issue was never even raised.

As I predicted, after all the hype and talk about regional transportation enjoying pride of place during the 34th edition of the Caricom Summit in Port-of-Spain and Pointe-a-Pierre, there was actually no real discussion on the issue during any of the sessions. So the problems as they existed last week and which affects the majority of Caricom states and their citizens, remain the same this week.

It is still to be seen therefore, whether Dr Gonsalves’ threat to take the fuel subsidy matter to the court will be pursued or whether it would remain hanging as it now does.

That the leaders have failed once again to address the intra-regional transportation issue, particularly efficient airlift, which affects all Caricom citizens indicates how far down the agenda the matter has been placed. In the run up to the meeting there was much posturing and promises were made that the issue would be dealt with in Port-of-Spain.

As a matter of fact a few weeks ago, Dr Gonsalves told the region he had arranged for a special meeting with Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar to discuss the issue, moreso that of her government’s continuing fuel subsidy to Caribbean Airlines.

From all appearances however, it would seem that the air transportation situation would be left in the air and more attention would now be paid to movement by sea through a fast ferry service as suggested several months ago by PM Persad Bis-sessar.

Reasonable and reliable air transportation has haunted the region for decades and while leaders past and present seem devoid of establishing a workable and efficient model, lip service continues to be the balm being used to soothe this burning issue. Regional leaders, it would seem, are quite comfortable to utter the occasional reminder that “it is being looked at”.

Every stakeholder, including the governments, are cognisant of the fact that lack of a proper and efficient regional transportation system affects the region’s economies, by stymieing business and cultural development, retarding the growth of the tourism industry which is of utmost importance to so many of our Caribbean states and denial of an efficient system of delivery of goods and services up and down the archipelago.

Over the years there have been countless conferences, roundtable discussions, seminars, workshops, including the annual Caricom Summits, by the many different stakeholders throughout the region, all in an effort to kick start real efforts to deal with the nagging problem, but they always seem to come to nought. Island States spend millions of dollars (US) in marketing their countries, beckoning visitors and investors. Many have even resorted to paying foreign airlines for airlift, all because the Caribbean has failed to sort out their transportation issues.

Earlier this year the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) pointed out that the lack of airlift continued to cripple the true potential of the tourism industry. But observers also note that while affordable transportation between the island states is desirable, there is a factor that continues to bedevil the situation and which needs to be attended to with dispatch. Taxes in all their creative incarnations face travellers in every single Caribbean destination, which inflates the cost of travel and of intra-island trade, a complaint that has long been heard, but which has never been seriously addressed.

In their continuous hunt for badly needed funds, many Caricom governments turn to the innocent traveller – leisure or business – from whom to exact these funds. There are existing destinations which tax you to enter and to depart; tax you for using their airport scanners at their demand, while others tax your for using their airports.

In the midst of all this transportation gloom however, there is one strand of hope on the horizon. LIAT, dubbed the Caribbean Airline, took possession of its second 68-seat ATR aircraft on Monday. This could signal the start of more efficient and reliable intra-island services, although it is hardly likely that fares would become cheaper, given that the airline is still suffering from serious cash flow problems.

Another ray of hope for a possible reversal of the ills that now attend regional travel is next week’s meeting of the Special Committee on Sustainable Tourism to be hosted in Port of Spain by the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), during which high level officials and tourism authorities would discuss matters pertaining to the efforts of the ACS in relation to the sustainable development of tourism in the Greater Caribbean.

At the end of the day, rather than playing games with the issue of regional travel and as reported recently, 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 region where such initiatives have been successfully 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 is all too present.