Caribbean transportation, integration and tourism

'One Sea, One Voice, One Caribbean'

No discussion of Caribbean tourism can take place without contemplating connectivity, by air or by sea. In fact, no tourism is even possible without these connections, both between islands but also to the outside World. But it is almost exclusively the outside World responsible for bringing visitors to Caribbean islands; air and cruise lines as well as hotel chains. There is almost a complete reliance on foreign carriers to carry people, and goods, from the main feeder markets in Europe and North America.

What is driving the development of air services is that Western visitors can more easily afford the higher price of air transport. For the most part, though, these are visitors and they will return to their homeland. And, these people are also more limited in time available during a visit. They usually don't move large quantities of bulk goods so air is the most suitable carrier.

By contrast, local people need transportation for work or other life necessities. In many cases, air transport is too expensive and drives up the cost of inter-island tourism as well as local products. It makes some local products uncompetitive. Moving large quantities of bulk goods, such as farm produce could be done more economically by using marine carriers. This would also give local farmers a larger market to sell into. Fast ferry services may be able to fill this gap, and a lot more. Clearly, if improved transport can be achieved, this will free more resources for spending and investment in the economy.

So, what does all this mean?

Simply put, there is not enough transport connectivity and what there is is expensive, overtaxed and subject to a fairly high level of un-reliability. Caribbean nations desperately need improved transportation and shipping. This would create important economic and social benefits but transportation is not receiving sufficient resources.

This must also include developing sea links to enable access to local Caribbean markets for small exporters and other businesses.

The discussion of these matters, however, is fraught with political infighting, protectionism and deep historical issues. The topic raises hackles and causes divisiveness that quickly blocks any actual useful debate over how to move forward.

Caribbean governments expect aviation to bring people to their countries but do not seem willing to come together to effectively support and develop local services. And, while some connections to World hubs exist for Caribbean Airlines, there most certainly needs to be more. These are essential services and therefore require governments to step up to guarantee availability.

The bottom line is that these poor, or often non-existing services, are interfering with progressive development of economic activity that delivers benefits to Caribbean peoples.

Coupled to this is the discussion about Caribbean integration. Caribbean countries, without doubt, need to find ways to co-operate economically and politically if they are to survive, progress and develop. Caribbean nations also need to come together to be able to compete internationally.

"There is need to agree on the principles for moving forward with implementing an agenda for functional cooperation … the areas that fall under the umbrella of functional cooperation should lend themselves to making the Community more dynamic by taking advantage of flexibilities that push the frontiers of the Community’s activities to connect directly and continuously with the aspirations of the Caribbean peoples". (A Comment on the Role of Functional Cooperation, The Integrationist)

What we have here is a failure of leadership. All of these things: transportation, integration and tourism are about communication and bringing people together. Yet, in the Caribbean none of them seems to be taken with enough gravitas to overcome differences.

How can this be the case in this interconnected World of instant news, social media and high speed travel? Certainly, there are few leaders who seem willing to step up, to adopt these tools to bring their peoples closer together.

How is it that people from one Caribbean island do not find a common bond with people from nearby islands when, in reality, their ancestors' origins are nearly the same. They do, at least, have a common bonds and culture and history. This narrative seems to have been dismissed in the fog of time. Perhaps the zeal for independence has gone too far.

The Caribbean Sea is 2,754,000 km2 out of the total 510,072,000 km2 of the Earth's surface. Even more striking is that the total land mass of islands in the Caribbean Sea is 236,675 km2 out of the total land mass on Earth of 148,939,063 km2 (less than 0.00159% or 2/10ths of 1%).

The Caribbean insular population is roughly 42 million out of a World population of 7.96 BILLION, or 0.0052%, just about 1/2 of 1%. The majority have African ancestry.

As a rough calculation, the economy of the insular Caribbean + Belize + Guyana was about $485 BILLION USD in 2019. These are the Caribbean countries listed by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation. This would be about 0.0055% of World GDP in 2019, which was $87.75 TRILLION, or again, just about 1/2 of 1%.

That is the reality. That is the situation. And yet, in such a small area, it would seem more possible to bring co-operation and cohesiveness. Alas, this is not so. And, despite promises by these foreign companies and local governments to deliver jobs and a little prosperity for the Caribbean, these things are not materialising.

Is it the sea that separates or binds together?

One must question whether the forces that are binding together are more powerful than the forces that are pushing apart because the bringing together is painfully slow. The irresistible force is meeting the immoveable object. Political will is the energy that is required to shift this balance. But the Caribbean political landscape, in its present context, is not guided by people with regional objectives, only insular ones. As long as this is the case, not much is available to shift the energy towards a more unified, holistic Caribbean region.

The exploitation continues, in part, because it is being allowed to happen.

One always has to consider the underlying motives of the people who are attempting to forward their own agenda. In most cases, in the Caribbean, the protection of a particular political entity continues to be the primary objective of many politicians. These people see their power as being enhanced when they have gathered support from their local electorates. Very few of them look outside of their own borders because foreigners won't get them elected. This narrow view condemns the Caribbean as a region to parochial isolation which, in turn, is the overall weakening of the region as a competitive entity.

How does any right minded Caribbean politician possibly think that any single Caribbean country within a population or a region with such insignificant size could ever compete in the hyper-competitive global marketplace. Notwithstanding, all the other developing regions attempting to do the same. Or maybe they see the World through a different lens.

At the same time, no integration is possible without a means of moving and carrying people and goods. So, a dominant theme of integration articles is the linking together of Caribbean countries by providing better transportation. Alas, it seems, movement here is also grindingly slow. Caribbean nations desperately need improved transportation and shipping. This would create important economic and social benefits but transportation is not being given sufficient resources. As a result, improving inter-island linkages is proving difficult as shown by the ongoing problems with LIAT. Clearly, if improved transport can be achieved, this will free more resources for spending and investment in the economy. It will allow many small producers to export within the region. And, since many of the largest carriers are foreign owned, the ones that bring foreigners in, this will also reduce leakage due to shipping revenue going outside the region.

In recent times, Caribbean transportation has taken on the primary role of bringing tourists to the island destinations. More so with air transport than with marine. Each country has taken the position that tourism is the core industry in their economy and therefore transportation is the main input that supplies both raw materials and consumers for this sector. This fact is clearly supported by statistics that show development, investment and visitor numbers in tourism. The Cruise industry, especially, is a transportation method supplying very large numbers of visitors to Caribbean ports of call, where, in recent times the cruise visitor numbers often eclipse stay-over visitor numbers and sometimes local resident populations.

Again, what does all this mean?

One has to consider that the Caribbean countries have more in common than what is obvious when you're on the ground in a particular country listening to expressions of local issues. The machinations of local politicians, after all, will always be directed at gathering local support. However, if these same politicians have the betterment of their people as a goal, they will see that achieving better outcomes for their people must, in fact does, come from outside. Tourism is an example. Out migration is another. But both of these activities mean diminishing returns for local people, in the long run. Small island populations simply don't have too many choices. What needs to take place is that politicians need to see, in practical terms, that a banding together as a negotiating or promotional body, has greater impact.

Leadership needs to step out from the shadows of the past. Leadership needs to create new paths to progress and not to continually regress into arguments about what was said or done before. Leadership needs to focus in on competitive strengths that Caribbean countries have and develop them.

Take, for example, these recommendations from the World Travel & Tourism Council, in its report: 'Travel & Tourism in the Caribbean: Prospects for Growth'

[T]here is potential for this to be significantly higher. The Caribbean’s Travel & Tourism sector could outpace the current growth trajectory and achieve an average annual rate of 6.7% to reach US$ 96.6 billion in 2032, up from US$ 50.5 billion in 2022. Meanwhile, Travel & Tourism jobs in the region could grow by an average rate of 4.5% annually, creating 1.34 million new jobs by 2032.

This additional growth of US$11 billion in GDP and 428,000 jobs above the current growth trajectory can only be achieved if governments, in collaboration with private sector, implement initiatives and policies such as lowering aviation fees, strengthening intra-regional collaboration, and investing in digital and physical infrastructure. They also need to focus on enhancing sustainability, recruiting and retaining the workforce, diversifying product offers, and increasing preparedness for future crises.

Further, it seems that Caribbean nations are more interested in developing relations with distant countries like China and Dubai when they are overlooking potential that is only a few miles away. Potential, it must be stressed that does not come with strings attached. Potential ready for the modern, forward-looking local entrepreneurs to grab and capitalise on.

Further, how can Caribbean tourism be developed within the Caribbean, based on Caribbean initiatives and values?

Nobody, right now, has answers to these questions that are adequate to solve deep, underlying issues such as internal conflicts, leakages and access to foreign exchange or developing the Caribbean workforce and ultimately directly benefitting local people and communities for the long term, just to name a few. But the problem is, how do you package all of these things in bite-sized chunks that are easy for people to digest.

The only way there can be any progress is for the Caribbean nations to come together is to act as a unified "United States of the Caribbean" or "Caribbean Union". At least at a broad level with the purpose to facilitate co-ordination of visa and customs rules, labour regulations, cross border travel, tourist taxation, airline regulations, airline subsidies and also, co-promotion of tourism along with food and energy security. And, while they're at it, a common currency too, the 'Caribe'. Ironically, these things will never come from outside —but they might be driven from outside.

The WTTC report, in its conclusion states:

As has been proven many times in the past, public-private-community partnerships (PPCP) and collaboration at all government levels, including at the multi-national and Caribbean regional level, will be key to success and essential to ensure that sustainability and inclusion are at the heart of policy decisions and future growth.

The OECS, Caricom and other regional bodies are clearly attempting to carve out a path to making at least some of this a reality but it is taking far too long. Each country needs to place the integration of the Caribbean at the top of its agenda, ahead of personal gain, partisan politics, insularity and protectionism —as much as can be done. So far, attempts to do this have fizzled but the attempts must continue, nonetheless, until a cohesive solution is found. That would be leadership; that would be statesmanship.

Functional cooperation has been established as being essential to the Caribbean integration process and as of the essential pillars of the work in the Caribbean Community. The background to its origin and its mode of operation until now has been well set out in the paper "A Community for All" presented at the Twenty-eighth Conference of CARICOM Heads of Government held in Barbados in July 2007. There has been a call for a renewed emphasis on functional cooperation perhaps because of the need to ensure that the benefits of the Community extend as far as possible to all the members of the Community. There is a growing emphasis on the CSME to which all the members of the Community as of now are not signatory and even among those which are, there are differences in terms of resources and levels of development. These factors contribute to a fissiparous tension within the Community. 
(Functional Cooperation in CARICOM: Philosophical Perspectives, Conceptual Issues and Relevant Examples) (Note A)

This is not pie in the sky thinking, this is mentoring for leadership on practical solutions to solving long-standing issues that are blocking progress. These recommendations are made by distinguished men with far more knowledge and experience than me. (Note B) Men like Dr Jean Holder, Sir Arthur Lewis, Sir Shridath Ramphal, Owen Arthur and many other advocates for a strong and effective regional organization. To this list must be added Winston Dookeran and Dr Carlos Elias who argue that the time for Caribbean integration has passed and the thinking must shift more towards 'Caribbean convergence'. All of these men advocate for statesmanship and true leadership. Regardless of the label applied, any form of a bringing together of resources from each of the small Caribbean countries will improve competitiveness by reducing and/or sharing costs.

And while the Caribbean Tourism Organization is a strong advocate for regional tourism with its tagline: 'One Sea, One Voice, One Caribbean', it not to say that each country, or destination, should ever lose its autonomy to promote its own brand, etc. Germany or France; London or Paris, Las Vegas or New York can and do act on their own but with unified regulations and services within their countries and regions have a much stronger case when they do so.

Instead - what there is now, a mish-mash of policies, regulations and promotions within 27, or so, countries that are potentially blocking effective development of tourism but also, importantly, other markets such as farming or local industries as well. In turn, blocking opportunites and prosperity for Caribbean people.

Lock the leaders in a room and wait for the smoke to clear. Only when a deal is reached should they be allowed to exit this room. The Caribbean people, in unity, deserve nothing less from their leadership. Never say never —ASEAN did it, the European Union did it, so, while there has been progress, the Caribbean can too!

Read an overview of the report: 'Travel & Tourism in the Caribbean: Prospects for Growth' @ The Voice, St Lucia.

Note A: Page @, 2020

Note B: Page @, 2020

Organizations with Caribbean integration objectives:

Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO)

The primary objective of CTO is to provide to and through its members the services and information necessary for the development of sustainable tourism for the economic and social benefit of the Caribbean people.

CARICOM: Caribbean Community Secretariat - The Caribbean Community | Wikipedia | Member States (Wikipedia)

To provide dynamic leadership and service in partnership with Community Institutions and groups, toward the attainment of a viable, internationally competitive and sustainable Community, with improved quality of life for all.

(The) Integrationist

Founded by Professor Sir Kenneth Hall, Honorary Distinguished Research Fellow at UWI and Mrs. Myrtle Chuck-A-Sang, Managing Director of The Integrationist – is an independent policy advocacy and education organisation, launched to contribute to the promotion of the work of regional integration.

Organization of Eastern Caribbean States: OECS | facebook | Wikipedia

The Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), which is regarded as the most successful Caribbean Integrated grouping, was established by the Treaty of Basseterre, on June 18th 1981. Its headquarter is in St. Lucia and is headed by a Director General. The Treaty was so named in honour of the capital of St. Kitts and Nevis where it was signed.

UNITE Caribbean

As a Caribbean cooperation and development consulting firm, UNITE Caribbean supports the social and economic development of Caribbean territories through regional technical cooperation.

University of the West Indies

Promotes understand among Caribbean peoples of different cultures.

More reading:

What is the integration movement in the Caribbean

The stated objectives of many attempts at integration over the last six, or so, decades have been quite similar but have been met with varying successes and failures.

'Diversify or die' by Marlon Madden, Barbados Today, August 26, 2022

"Authorities in Barbados and the rest of the region are being advised to stop putting all their eggs in the tourism basket and diversify their economies in line with global changes if they want to survive.
Principals of Upturn Funds Caribbean (UFC) offered that guidance during the venture capital firm’s inaugural investment summit on Thursday at the Barbados Hilton Resort".

UFC co-founder and chairman Raphael D’angelis points to regional integration and improved maritime transportation as vital to economic development. He also suggests that the investment landscape is undergoing radical change and investors need to modernize their thinking in line with changing world realities. 'Diversify or die' —that is the reality the region faces.

Press release and contact information: Upturn Funds and Leadership Axehead Consulting convenes global summit in Barbados

Upturn Funds Caribbean Investment Summit hosted by Leadership Axehead Consulting is a cutting edge leadership and investment solutions event where government, private sector, investment and global leaders present tailor-made solutions for the socio-economic development needs of the Caribbean and other developing economies with a focus on social value and advancement of human capital.

Economist discusses price competitiveness in the Caribbean, Virgin Islands Daily News, September 19, 2022

During a recent a Caribbean Aviation Day, economist, Marla Dukharan says: "The IMF (International Monetary Fund) found that airlift is the single most important factor that determines the amount of tourists that come and also the revenue that we get from the tourism sector", adding that it impacts tourism activity more than room stock or the availability of hotel rooms.

Airline ticket taxes, most of which go to regional governments to help boost infrastructure and provide travel-related services, was an issue during the conference, with Dukharan stating that taxes constitute some 30 percent to 40 percent of the total cost of airline ticket prices.

“Our governments need to address (taxes)," she said, disclosing that another major regional challenge is the disease of doing business within territories and across the region.

"Those are some of the factors that drive up the cost of doing business and make this the most expensive region, in terms of tourism and vacations," said Dukharan, who believes as the most tourism-dependent region on earth, the Caribbean has to solve these problems.

"Otherwise, five years from now, 10 years from now, we will be singing the same song, lamenting the same problems and our economies would be much more affected by the fact that we haven’t solved these problems. We need to solve these problems now," she said. "Unless we make change here, then this is just a party… and you know, we have carnival for that. We really need to make sure that we take action as opposed to just having a nice time getting together in person."

WTTC says it’s time for a regional airline, Caribbean News Service, September 20, 2022

Julia Simpson, the president of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), believes it’s time for the Caribbean to have its own airline.

Simpson also called for lower air taxes to drive business and investment. “We know that this stimulates customer demand while making it more commercially viable for the airlines to operate,” said Simpson as she showered praise on the Government of Antigua and Barbuda for announcing a 50 percent reduction in taxes on airline tickets for travel within several Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries.