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Regional air fares should be addressed

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20.APR.07

Geography can be a powerful factor in the development of a country or region. It can either be an impetus to or facilitate progress or it can hinder or retard the pace of development. It is of course not the only, or even sometimes the main determining factor, but it is nonetheless of significance.

Take the Caribbean, for instance. Our geographical proximity to huge markets in North, Central and South America is an asset, one of which we do not always make the best use, but it is a plus.{{more}} In the same way on a broader level, the fact of being part of a continental landmass as in Europe or North America makes transportation and physical market access much easier.

Conversely our own Caribbean region, so blessed in some ways, has the drawback where transport is concerned of being divided by water. For us therefore, regional transportation ought to be one of the main priorities. But things are not always what they ought to be, for regional transport, whether by air or sea is something that we just seem not to be getting right. As a result, our region is highly dependent on external sources for our main transport arteries.

In the case of shipping, not since the days of the Federation when we had the Federal Palm and the Federal Maple, have we been able to put together a service that could take goods and people from Port of Spain via all the island ports right up to Jamaica. This is the reason why Dominica cannot properly access markets for bananas in the Leewards and other northern islands. Our inter-island ferries are limited in scope, service and facilities. Investment in this area is critical if we are to realize the regional common market we desire.

Air transport for the region is a huge challenge. Our many forays into trying to develop national as opposed to regional air carriers, have handed taxpayers in Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica huge losses. LIAT has survived a half of a century, courtesy the patience and loyalty of the Caribbean people including subsidies from our tax revenues. In the meantime we have welcomed many ill-fated competitors, hoping that competition would redound to our benefit. Carib Express, BWIA Express, EC Express, all came and left with express speed. Caribbean Star seemed to hold out hope but soon sank into the LIAT rut and we have ended up with a monopoly.

We were told what a great victory it is for us. But if we look at what has happened to the air fares, it seems not. Fares have been jacked up outrageously since the LIAT-STAR merger and it is having its effect on regional travel. It is carrying up the cost of doing business when it should be coming down, hindering regional travel, when it should be expanding and retarding rather than facilitating regional integration. Simply put, regional air fares are too high.

The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as a major shareholder and primary mover of the merger, has a responsibility to use its influence to investigate and have the problem addressed.

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