News Americas, LONDON, England, Fri. June 29, 2018: As a young journalist, I had the good fortune to travel the region. Then the experience was seamless, easy, relatively low cost and efficient.
Now, multiple decades on, governments and security requirements have made it less than pleasant, and particularly mind numbing, expensive and illogical if it involves multiple transits through OECS nations. Maddeningly, travelling for example between the BVI and Trinidad, can now take longer and cost more than a flying to New York.
Two recent statements on the issue of inter-island transport are therefore welcome, if they genuinely mean that an effort is to be made in the OECS to improve and lower the cost of regional connectivity.
In a recent interview in the Antigua Observer, the CEO of LIAT, Julie Reifer-Jones, expressed the view that the in-transit taxes charged by all governments have become “counterproductive.”
She said that while she understood the need to sustain airports, the resulting high cost of airfares had become a more pressing issue.
“What we observe is that the airports in the region are generally using travel as a way of generating revenue to sustain the airport, but it is at the point now where it is counterproductive, because the proportion of the ticket that is taxes is way too high to stimulate travel in the region,” she said.
To begin to address the issue she proposed that governments remove transit taxes: the multiple levies imposed on travelers en route to another destination by each nation a plane lands at.
These, Mrs. Reifer-Jones observed, accumulate as LIAT’s passengers move throughout the region because so many fly more than one sector, routing through Barbados, St Vincent or Antigua if they are connecting elsewhere in the region.
Noting that the issue was not an easy one for governments, she suggested that some territories were now willing to “commit” to an adjustment in the taxes, and that “a more robust discussion” than ever before was now underway, involving a wider range of nations.
More recently, Barbados’s new Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, has called for the lifting of restrictions on passengers in-transit by air or sea for more than two hours through the island. She said that she wanted them to be able to clear immigration so that they can at least shop or as she put it, contribute to the economic activity of the country. Ms Mottley also suggested the need to review inter-island transportation in ways that enable new modalities and, in particular, fast ferries to come into service to bring regional transport into the 21st century.
“I am aware that unless we get to the stage where we can facilitate the movement of not just people, but vehicles and cargo we will not reap the full benefit of the space we have the honor to occupy,” she said.
The sentiments expressed by both are backed up by recent studies produced by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and another by CDB and LIAT. The two studies show a decline in regional travel, but a growth in extra-regional travel. Both in part cite as a constraint on inter-regional travel high levels of tax. This they suggest has created an environment that has led to Caribbean travelers preferring to visit often similar destinations outside of the region.
This may all seem like common sense and likely to stimulate economic growth. However, it requires Caribbean Heads of Government and their finance, transport, immigration, home affairs and security ministers and all their officials to overcome their present protectionist, bureaucratic approach.
Although there is widespread acceptance that if inter-regional tourism is to flourish, decisive action is needed to ease the multiple taxes charged and to remove other impediments to travel, inaction prevails.
Consequently, when it comes to the OECS and Barbados altering their approach, I will not be holding my breath. Instead I will be hoping that the multi-destination arrangements that Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and others are now trying to finalize, might establish an alternative model that demonstrates progress of benefit to inter-regional travelers and visitors alike is possible.