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Travel in the Caribbean – the horrors part 1

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The recent debate in the media between former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell and a staunch critic of the construction of one of Sir James’ pet projects, the Bequia airport which was named after him, has spurred me to make some comments on air travel in general, with specific reference to the Caribbean.{{more}}

Sir James, in defending his legacy, made a case for the future of small airplanes in the development of the tourism industry, and argues that an “open skies” competitive policy environment to lower prices and stimulate inter-regional travel, as well as lower taxes (airport and airline) are necessary to drive and boost the sector.

The whole issue of regional travel, both by air, and, strangely for an area surrounded by sea water, by sea, is a matter discussed practically daily at all levels of Caribbean society. Persons outside our region just cannot comprehend the veritable absence of a passenger marine service throughout the region. There are some limited services such as between St Vincent and its Grenadine islands, Grenada and Carriacou/Petit Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago and the French ferry serving Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and St Lucia. However, for more than four decades now, since the days of the fabled Federal Palm and Federal Maple, two vessels donated by Canada to the ill-fated West Indies Federation, there has not been a marine passenger service linking the Caribbean islands.

There has been much talk, and grand pronouncements by political leaders even giving dates for the commencement of this supposed passenger ferry service, but no show up to the moment. There were even schedules published in the newspapers, but, as they say in court, “no appearance mi’ Lord”. Neither has there been credible explanations.

So we are left with the sole prospect of air travel if we are to get from island to island. The new nationalism which came with the break-up of the Federation and the advent of national independence, brought with it ambitious plans for national airlines. Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Barbados, each sported national carriers while we in the islands had our LIAT. Even in the small islands some of those “national carriers” initiated subsidiary services, with small airports crowded by several carriers, almost always under-capacity.

The inevitable happened. The debt-ridden national carriers could not sustain their routes, nor their subsidiaries, and have disappeared one by one, save T&T’s Caribbean Airlines, on a very limited basis compared with its grand days. The upshot is that we are left with a multi-state owned LIAT as the main vehicle for air travel in the region. The costs, inefficiencies and debts are now legendary and we the Caribbean people are who suffer most.

The high cost of inter-island air travel is not only a financial burden to travellers, particularly from countries like SVG and Dominica which have no international airports, and thus must tack on an extra $800 to $1000 to the cost of international travel for journeying to connecting points, but has become a major obstacle to the growth of inter-island travel and a hindrance to the deepening of the regional integration process.

In addition, it is a brake on economic development in the region, another obstacle in the way of the stimulation of the business environment in the Caribbean. It also leaves those governments which own LIAT with the unenviable task of funding its operations, pouring money into a seemingly bottomless pit for which, unfortunately, there is yet to be a credible alternative. High taxes on tickets and at airports are utilized but these are merely passed on to disgruntled passengers and merely adds to widespread dissatisfaction.

We may be left with little alternative but this in no way soothes us and our airports are characterised by seething passengers. The quality of the service offered certainly does not help as we will see in Part 2, next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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