Published On: Mon, Jul 1st, 2013

Thirty-fourth Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of CARICOM Transportation – a major area of focus

caricom_hog_haitiCARICOM Secretariat, Turkeyen, Greater Georgetown, Guyana -  There is a school of thought that a more positive and apt description of the group of States that form the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is one couched in language that infers connectedness rather than divisiveness by the Caribbean Sea. In other words, the characteristic of being connected by the Caribbean Sea lends to inclusiveness, a feeling of belonging and togetherness that may be the lynchpin for further development of the “Community for all’ envisioned by the architects and current torchbearers of CARICOM.

The deep roots of connection between and amongst the peoples of the Caribbean long preceded the 40 year-old Caribbean Community. Many of us can trace our heritage to Caribbean territories we do not call `home’. Our ancestors in those days traversed the Region by sea, affordability and availability being their primary considerations.

There is no doubt that efficient transportation within the Region of mainly island states - especially in the context of fulfilling the dream of unfettered movement of people and goods within the CARICOM Single Market, and facilitating the growth of tourism that is so germane to the development of the Caribbean - is of critical importance.  It is fitting, therefore, that a special session of the Conference of Heads of Government of CARICOM 4-6 July in Trinidad and Tobago will be devoted to transportation matters.

But there is the perception that in times past, shipping and travel within the Region were far easier and more facilitating than what obtains today, given the vagaries of air and sea transport and border control policies. Today, intra-regional transportation is facing serious challenges to the extent that, in the wake of a series of calls from both the public and privates sectors to address these challenges, special focus was placed on transportation issues at a Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) held in May, last, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The crescendo of largely negative positions on regional transportation had reached fever pitch on the eve of the Special COTED meeting with frustrations being expressed, particularly in the political and business spheres, in respect of the performance of the Region’s air carriers LIAT, Surinam Airways and Caribbean Airlines (CAL);  the unsustainable operations of startup carriers that seek to ply the regional routes; the high fuel and other costs that are transferred to the consumer as reflected in the steadily increasing cost of airline tickets; and the lack of a regional ferry service in the Southern Caribbean as an alternative means of intra-regional travel and shipping.

“I think that we have to try and find a solution to the transportation problems that are plaguing us in the Community, not only in terms of inter-regional travel, but sometimes through the Region. Our tourism depends on it, our trade and services...depend on transportation so we have to find solutions to our issues,” CARICOM Secretary-General Irwin LaRocque succinctly told the media.

Ministers will recommend the reintroduction of the Single Domestic Space (SDS) that was established for Cricket World Cup in 2007, as one of the measures to provide some relief to those traversing the Community. The success of that 2007 initiative was alluded to during the Special COTED, in particular its popularity with the citizens of the Community. Among the features of the SDS that involved the participation of ten CARICOM Member States were freedom of movement for all domestic travellers and a Special Visa stamped at the first port of entry for travellers from outside the Region to allow hassle free movement among the participating SDS states. Measures to support the initiative included an Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS) which provided specific information to the destination point prior to the boarding of passengers.

The Ministers also agreed to recommend to the Heads of Government that they support the proposed LIAT application to the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) for the required financing to meet the costs of its re-fleeting exercise. The upgrading of LIAT’s aircraft fleet is necessary to sustain its operation and improve its services. Ministers also recommended that air transport services be included among the group of essential services and the necessary legislation be enacted to give effect to this recommendation.

Development of the Community’s transport sector has its underpinnings in Chapter Six of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, which establishes the goal of the Community Transport Policy as the provision of adequate, safe and internationally competitive transport services for the development of the CSME.

The objectives to be pursued in this regard are:

The organization of efficient, reliable, affordable transport services throughout the Community;

The development and expansion of air and maritime transport capabilities in the Community;

The promotion of cooperative arrangements for the provision of transport services;

The development of efficient internationally competitive ancillary transport services;

The development of human resources for employment in all areas and at all levels of the transport sector; and

The implementation of standards for the development of safe road, riverine, sea and air transport services.

As the Community moves to fulfill its transport mandate, the special circumstances of Member States, the global environment, operational and other costs must be carefully considered. Some experts have argued that there is a special developmental role for airlines of developing countries. In this context the operations of airlines of developing countries should not be assessed solely on financial returns. Account must be taken also of their contribution to the social and economic development of the community they serve and the high risk of leaving that developmental role solely to foreign operators whose main objectives might be to maximize profits.

Back in 2011, the Hon. Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of Dominica, had also referred to the development role of transportation:

“The challenge for us is that transport is a commercial enterprise as well as a developmental exercise and not all needed routes are commercially viable. External costs and fuel prices dog our best efforts but efficient transportation by sea and air will remain among our highest priorities in the years ahead,” he had said as he delivered the second David Thompson Memorial Lecture.

Notwithstanding the development thrust, transportation is a business in its own right, seeking at least, to break even in its operations. It is affected by the laws of supply and demand and the principles of transport economics. There are certain matters that should be taken into consideration with respect to regional transportation. For example:

the fact that the unit operating costs of short sector operations is generally higher, vis-à-vis, the unit operating cost of long sector operations;

an IATA study has concluded that whilst the average net air fare (that is an air fare less taxes, fees and charges called “add-ons” collected for other agencies) is generally lower in the Caribbean region vis-à-vis other comparable geographic regions, the `add-ones’ in the Caribbean region are generally higher than those in the comparable regions;

the cost of fuel is generally the highest single component of the operating cost of an airline. Its fluctuation impacts on the level of airfares and consequently the cost of travel. Maintenance is generally the second highest component.

In recognition of the fact that the economic environment is challenging and that the Region’s trading patterns are changing as a consequence of the various global, hemispheric and regional trade agreements concluded by the Community, the “big challenge” is to develop a strategy to enhance intra-regional and international connectivity in response to the changing imperatives, one expert said. To this end a comprehensive Regional Transportation Plan is being developed with support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In the interim a recently concluded feasibility study of the establishment of a fast-ferry service in the Southern Caribbean for the carriage of passengers and cargo has been placed on the front-burner of the Community. It is one of the matters considered at the Special COTED held May, last, that will be re-examined by the Conference with a view to moving it forward. As Prime Minister SKerritt reminded, the Community was “once world renown for our maritime industries, our schooner building and inter-island shipping”. In encouraging the recreation of a network of state of the art vessels, he reminisced that our seafaring activities promoted a feeling of unity among our peoples, and facilitated businessmen in the expansion of regional trade

Those are the goals to which the Community must continue to strive in the realm of transportation.

 

 

 

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