Intra-regional travel, especially in the Eastern Caribbean, will be high on the agenda when travel and tourism stakeholders meet next week in the Cayman Islands to observe the International Air Transport Association's (IATA's) 4th Caribbean Aviation Day on September 14.
Held under the theme 'Recover, Reconnect, Revive', the Caribbean Aviation Day will bring together industry experts, senior aviation executives, and government authorities to discuss the sector's largest opportunities and key challenges across the Caribbean region with the aim of identifying how joint efforts can be used to rebuild a more competitive air transport sector in a post-COVID world.
Among the speakers expected to share at the event are Trinidad and Tobago-based economist Marla Dukharan; professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at The University of Texas at Austin, Dr John-Paul Clarke; IATA regional vice-president for the Americas, Peter CerdÃ¡; and Jamaica Observer Managing Director Julian Rogers. They will join the Cayman Islands Minister for Tourism and Transport Kenneth Bryan along with other senior members of various Caribbean governments at the event.
Both Dukharan and Rogers will serve as moderators for discussions on the topics 'Transforming Regional Connectivity and the Role of the Private Sector in Financing Intra-Regional Travel' and 'Multi-Destination Tourism', respectively. Dr Hyginus "Gene" Leon, president of the Caribbean Development Bank, will share his thoughts on the first topic.
The issue of intra-regional travel came up again as a point of concern in July when a council of tourism ministers in the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) issued a statement on the matter.
"The OECS Council of Ministers: Tourism recognises the OECS region has been plagued by high airfares and poor intra-regional connectivity. This situation has been further intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic," the statement read in part.
It continued: "The Council of Ministers: Tourism recognise that limited connectivity has contributed to the high cost of intra-regional travel, at a time when there is pent-up travel demand. This is resulting in the loss of economic opportunities in the travel and trade sectors."
Moreover, the ministers added that having a regional air carrier is of utmost importance as it accounted for at least 25 per cent of tourist arrivals across the subregion, contributing directly and indirectly to economic growth, employment, and government revenue.
To this end the OECS ministers said that in "recognising that regional travel is a strategic pillar for sustainable economic development has agreed to the following:
"1. Recommitting efforts to advocate for a regional carrier, as a matter of urgency, to facilitate the demand for intra-regional travel;
"2. Acknowledging the important role of the CARICOM's Multilateral Air Services Agreement [MASA] in the development of intra-regional travel, and the need for Member States to facilitate interline opportunities between air carriers by applying the MASA as a means of improving air connectivity within the region; and
"3. Committing to exploring with the private sector a financially viable inter-island fast ferry service which would also facilitate the movement of goods, services and people, at a more cost-effective rate whilst advancing the OECS Free Movement Regime."
Back in January, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) estimated that the region lost US$1 billion in 2021 due to a stagnation in travel between the region's destinations.
"While international travel to the region has rebounded to 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, intra-regional business and leisure travel has dropped to around 30 per cent, with smaller Caribbean economies and small businesses hit particularly hard," the CHTA stated then, crediting President Nicole Madden Greig.
She further argued that stimulating intra-regional travel would dynamise higher local spending, boost trade in local goods and services, increase government revenues and revitalise local economies.
As such, the CHTA has called on Caribbean government and private sector leaders to boost intra-regional travel, while fostering greater parity, clarity and consistency for travel. Moreover, it recommended that regional airlines such as Bahamasair, Caribbean Airlines, Cayman Airways, interCaribbean Airways and LIAT work collectively with both the public and private sectors to seamlessly stimulate intra-regional travel.
CEO of interCaribbean Airways Trevor Sadler has, however, defended the airlines role in regional connectivity.
"Despite the pandemic we have added four new destinations in the Eastern Caribbean, adding even greater connection points and increasing the ability of business and leisure travellers to move seamlessly throughout the region. We welcome efforts by governments and private sector partners to put in place additional measures which will support and stimulate the return of intra-Caribbean travel," he stated.
In fact, the Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands-based airline in August added more flights to its services to Barbados and the Cheddi Jagan International Airport in Guyana. This was after launching a new service to the Ian Fleming Airport in St Mary, Jamaica.
Come October, interCaribbean can expect competition for it service between the Norman Manley Airport International Airport in Kingston, Jamaica, and Las Americas in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. With the Jamaican Government recently giving the green light to airlines in the Dominican Republic to establish connectivity between the two destinations, Sky Aviation and Arajet are preparing to launch services soon.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Caribbean LIAT continues to operate a limited flight schedule since going into administration back in 2020. From November 2020 to present, the airline has only operated five days a week to seven destinations: Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia, St Kitts, and St Vincent.
As recent as last month, new Grenada Prime Minister Dickon Mitchell, in a CMC report, revealed that regional leaders in the OECS had met with a representative of Barbados and the President of Guyana Dr Irfaan Ali to discuss the situation regarding air transportation in the Caribbean amidst concerns that both regional and international travellers are finding its very expensive and difficult to commute.
"It was agreed that we would retain a consultant to provide advice to the heads of the region as to how we can address the critical need to have, particularly air transportation resumed at a level that existed prior to COVID-19," the CMC quotes Mitchell.
Still, with no indication of a clear resolution, Madden Greig believes the issue deserves more airing out.
"The main challenge now is still with regional airlift that has impacted destinations especially in the Eastern Caribbean that rely on regional travel... This is a focus of CHTA [as we aim] to drive regional travel growth. We will be attending the Caribbean Aviation Summit in Cayman next week where the matter will be further discussed with a hope for solutions including the implementation of the MASA agreement," she told Caribbean Business Report.
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