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Call for strong policy on open skies
Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2011

By Derren Joseph
July 19, 2011

In my opinion, we in T&T have a special relationship with Guyana and Grenada partly because of the regular movement of people among these territories. When I visited St Lucia for Jazz, I was surprised by the number of Martiniquans I met there, but I subsequently discovered that there is regular movement of people between St Lucia and Martinique, thanks to a fairly reliable ferry service.

Similarly, there appears to be a strong relationship between Antiguans and Montserratians, thanks to the regular movement of people on their ferry service. Similarly between St Martin and Anguilla, thanks to the affordable 20-minute ferry ride that runs every 45 minutes or so.

It is clear to me that cost effective and reliable regional transportation is a very critical component of the movement towards greater regional integration. The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association's (CHTA) Josef Forstmayr has been extensively quoted within the past couple weeks. He says that intra-Caribbean visitors was once as high as 1.5 million but it declined to 566,000 in 2010. Forstmayr pointed a finger at the various governments for discouraging intra-regional travel with high taxes. Some such as the Guyanese President and Jamaican Prime Minister have highlighted poor treatment of our Caricom nationals at some of our region's airports. Others point to the decrease in available airline seats across the region caused by the disappearance of Caribbean Star and Caribbean Sun, together with the reduced regional network served by the "new" Air Jamaica and BWIA/Caribbean Airlines.

Regional transportation critical

Regional transportation is critical because getting to know each other better helps bring down the barriers that seek to divide us. Prime Minister Gonsalves of St Vincent has been recently quoted as calling on the Big Four to play a leadership role in promoting regional integration. The Big Four being Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad. This of course, is an ironic statement coming from the leader who appears to have blocked Caricom Airways from getting off the ground last year.

CHTA President Josef Forstmayr has also called for a functional open skies policy and an end to protectionist policy in regional aviation. He of course, understands the importance of airlift to regional economies and champions the ratification of the 2007 San Juan Aviation Accord which supports public and private sector cooperation on airlift. He is quoted as saying: "You cannot walk to our islands, drive there nor swim there; you can't get to us without air lift. So we can talk for as long as the day is long about better products, more hotels, more marketing, more anything; if you cannot get there it is not going to happen. We need to call for a strong policy on open skies. We are talking about regional integration and everyone jumps up and makes statements that basically reinforce their intention to their national carriers. We need to enforce the existing agreements that are there under the civil aviation of Caricom, enforce them equally, without fear or favour. We cannot protect certain operators over others because it's important that we grow the industry."

Blame politics for snail's pace

Perhaps a key reason for the snail's pace with which regional integration is proceeding, is politics. Public rhetoric aside, politicians jealously cling to their tiny fiefdoms to the detriment of the integration movement. At the same time, I know that there are those amongst us who genuinely believe that Trinidad for example, can survive alone thanks to its energy reserves. Others like me think that such a view is misguided if only for two reasons.

Firstly, the day is coming when oil and gas would no longer support us at the level to which we have become accustomed. At that point we would be more dependent on access to regional markets than we can imagine now. Secondly, if, God forbid, we ever suffer any kind of natural disaster, it will be those very neighbours that we would want to rush to us first. We may depend on their aid more than a US who no longer sees the Caribbean region as a strategic priority compared to the Middle East. It is our neighbours that may help us more than a Europe that is struggling to deal with its own economic problems. For better or for worse, it is in our long term strategic interest to get along with all our neighbours. To do otherwise, is to create a situation which we will eventually regret.

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