The Case for an Eastern Caribbean Ferry

By

By S Brian Samuel
Op-Ed Contributor

There’s no cheap travel within the Caribbean. Unlike Greece and other island archipelagos, virtually all travel within the Caribbean is by air. And as we all know, travelling by air within the Caribbean is, to put it mildly, “challenging”. For starters it costs a fortune to fly. As at mid-2014, average LIAT air fares were more than four times higher than intra-European air fares, on a per-mile basis. It often costs more to fly to a neighbouring Caribbean island than to New York.

Between 2010 and 2014, LIAT’s average fares increased by about 40 percent. It would be tempting to put this increase down to higher fuel prices; but sadly, this is not the case. Although global oil prices did increase over this period; given that fuel generally accounts for no more than half of an airline’s operating costs; it is evident that “something else” has been driving up LIAT’s prices. Whatever the reason, it is the beleaguered Caribbean traveller that bears the cost.

Not only that – it takes forever. Last month I did six takeoffs and landings in one day, to get from Trinidad to Saint Thomas. This was a new world record, for me at any rate. Six flights by themselves wouldn’t be so bad but it’s all the palaver in between. You get off the plane, get strip searched in the transit lounge; then get back on the same plane. It’s enough of a hassle when things go right; not to mention when things go wrong. As it does. Often.

We don’t visit each other. Our politicians talk endlessly about Caribbean unity; yet at the border we’re given the third degree. Only a small percentage of intra-regional travellers are on holiday; most are flying because they have to. It’s therefore not surprising that intra-Caribbean travel has been declining: LIAT’s passenger numbers have shrunk from 1.1 million in 2008 to 850,000 in 2013. Despite this falloff in its revenue base, LIAT last year invested US$260 million in a complete replacement of its fleet, switching from the tried and trusted Dash-8 to ATRs. Would you invest US$260 million of your own money into such a failing airline? Congratulations; you just did; LIAT’’s loans are all guaranteed by its government shareholders.

Yet we’ve got plenty of reasons to visit each other. The Caribbean has no shortage of carnivals, festivals, regattas or dozens of other reasons to have a riproaringly wanton time for a few days – these are but a few:

CARIBBEAN FESTIVALS: WHEN Party Time Is All The Time

  1. Trinidad Carnival –           Feb/March
  2. Dominica Carnival –           Feb/March
  3. Carriacou Maroon Festival –           April
  4. St Lucia Jazz Festival –           May
  5. St Kitts Music Festival –           June
  6. St Lucia Carnival –           July
  7. Barbados Cropover –           Early August
  8. Carriacou Regatta –           Early August
  9. Grenada Carnival –           Mid-August
  10. St Kitts Carnival –           December

You cannot buy a seat for love nor money. During carnival time in the Caribbean (i.e. most of the time), air travel in the region becomes murderous; because heaven forbid that LIAT would do something as radical as putting on extra flights in response to regional demand spikes. Every year a Trinidadian ferry does a special charter for Grenada Carnival; and every year it’s filled to the gills. But for most of the year we do not travel – because we can’t afford to. This is when we are crying out for a ferry.

We talk about sports tourism; yet it is prohibitively expensive to send sporting teams on tour in the Caribbean. This year the English cricket team – and their fanatical followers the Barmy Army – will descend on the Caribbean. And all the games are being played in the Eastern Caribbean. Can you imagine a creatively packaged ferry tour, catering to boisterous English cricket fans, following their team around the Caribbean? They would love it! Instead, we deliver them into the arms of LIAT – and say a prayer. This is when we are crying out for a ferry.

There are dozens of regional events, where attendance would undoubtedly be much greater, were it not for the high travel costs involved. Church groups, youth groups, community groups – just about any group of Caribbean people love to go on an “outing”. We used to go on outings to neighbouring islands, by inter-island schooners. We don’t do that anymore; nowadays we fly. Or rather we don’t fly; because it costs too much. There are family connections between all the islands of the Eastern Caribbean; everyone has that that they have not seen for too long. Repeat: this is when we are crying out for a ferry.

But wait, we DO have ferries. Indeed, there are 11 ferry companies currently operating in the Eastern Caribbean, running a total of 21 boats. These range from modern fast roll-on roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships that accommodate passengers, cars and trucks; to rusty old cargo “schooners” So, the question has to be asked: If there is this crying need for inter-island ferry services, why don’t more ferry companies offer cross-border services?

“It’s a nightmare!” say the ferry operators; with regard to the bureaucracy, cost and time involved in taking a vessel from one island to another. Only one company, L’Express des Iles out of Martinique, operates across international borders. All the other ferries stick within their national boundaries: Trinidad to Tobago; Grenada to Carriacou; St. Vincent to the Grenadines, etc.

The problem stems from the archaic, cumbersome rules regulating international marine trading in the Caribbean. These rules desperately need to be simplified and harmonized, so that all regional jurisdictions will be reading from the same book – literally.

Ferries are cheaper than flying. The average fare charged by the 11 ferry companies in the Eastern Caribbean works out to US$1.06 per mile. This is about 65 percent of the average cost per mile of LIAT fares, as at mid-2014.

Speed is expensive. One of the main determinants of ferry fares is the speed of the vessel. Fares charged by the region’s fast ferry operators are almost twice as high as the traditional slow boats. Sailing time between Trinidad and Grenada is 6 hours at 15 knots, and 4.5 hours at 20 knots. However, that additional 5 knots would result in a doubling of the fare – speed is expensive in boats.

Ferries are for short distances. Realistically, ferry voyages should be no more than about 4 to 5 hours duration; unless they are overnight trips. You have to take account of sea conditions. Hence, it is not feasible to consider a ferry route from Trinidad to Barbados; otherwise the boat would earn the same nickname as one particularly uncomfortable regional ferry: the vomit comet!

Don’t forget the tourists. In a survey conducted in 2014 among the UK’s leading tour operators; 75 percent of respondents felt that many of their clients (10 percent or more) would be interested in using a ferry service in the Eastern Caribbean. In 2013, the Eastern Caribbean received 1.3 million tourists; 10 percent of that is 130,000 potential ferry customers. That’s a pretty good base to start with.

Potential ferry routes: Based on established linkages among the sub-regions of the Eastern Caribbean, possible ferry routes include:

  • Northern Caribbean: Historically there are close links among the islands of the Northern Caribbean; where people move freely, seemingly immune from visa and other restrictions. The sub-region is served by ferries from Antigua to Barbuda, and from St. Kitts to Nevis; but there is no regular regional service.
  • Barbados-Saint Lucia: Both islands are major regional tourist destinations; however they offer vastly different products. Tour operators report that although their clients are interested in multi-destination holidays; they don’t like to fly – particularly on LIAT. A fast, safe ferry between both islands, where the journey becomes a scenic attraction in itself, would be popular among tourists. And, importantly, Saint. Lucia is the easiest point from which to sail to Barbados, where the Atlantic waters can sometimes be “a bit frisky”.
  • The Grenadines: The quintessential island-hopping experience; including the world famous Tobago Cays. There is a great deal of inter-island movement among the Southern Grenadines, most of which occurs in small informal boats and goes completely unrecorded. There is no scheduled ferry service between Carriacou (Grenada) and Union Island (Saint Vincent); you have to charter a private boat to cross this short stretch of water, from whence you can pick up a ferry to the rest of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
  • Trinidad-Grenada: “Scratch a Trini; you find a Grenadian.” There are strong linkages between Trinidad and Grenada. Successive administrations from both countries have tried to launch ferry projects – all without success. Between LIAT and CAL there are about 5 direct flights per day; plus connections via Saint Vincent and Barbados. For low-cost travel, many people sail on the cargo vessels plying the Grenada-Trinidad trade; which are limited to 12 passengers per trip, and are far from comfortable. There is no doubt that a ferry service, charging fares significantly lower than air fares, could double the size of the travelling public between Trinidad and Grenada – or more.

If a ferry service is so badly needed; why hasn’t it happened up to now? Caribbean Rose, Bedy Lines Limited, Fast Caribbean Ltd: just three of the failed project initiatives within living memory – there are many, many more. There are many reasons why these projects failed to launch, including:

  • Most of them originated from unsolicited proposals submitted to one government; there has been no coordinated regional ferry project involving all the regional governments.
  • The economics of Caribbean fast ferry projects are often marginal, with untried routes, high operating costs and limited ability to pay on the part of the travelling public.
  • None of the participating governments have thus far been willing to commit subsidy funds to a regional ferry project.
  • Some of the vessels proposed by investors were not suitable for the intended purpose.

Is a regional ferry viable? I do not know; but I suspect that it could be. With the right structure and support; and given enough time for the concept of inter-island travel by ferry to catch on (again); I believe that a regional ferry service could become a self-sustaining commercial enterprise. It would probably require a subsidy, at least (hopefully only!) in the early years.

The key is low fares. People will not go through the extra travel time, unless there are substantial dollar savings to be made. Although a ferry would be expected to take away some demand from air travel; the real benefit of a ferry would be to expand the market, by making regional more affordable than at present.

You need lots of bodies. Let’s look at for example the Trinidad to Grenada route. Based on my own back of envelope calculations; a ferry would require about 120 passengers to break even on a Trinidad to Grenada voyage. This is based on current regional prices for diesel fuel.

Let’s drive. How difficult can it be, for the governments in the region to get together and do away with the cumbersome rules currently regulating the temporary movement of motor vehicles across Caribbean borders? There are plenty of international precedents to learn from. Apparently, the simple is impossible. But allowing the inter-island movement of vehicles would be a game-changer for intra-Caribbean travel; just look at Europe.

Public or private? After our grim experiences of government-run airlines throughout the Caribbean, the last thing we need is a “LIAT-on-sea”. Although governments of the region would play a critical role in launching and regulating the regional ferry; governments should leave the business of business where it belongs: in the private sector.

Donors support is essential. Undoubtedly, some international organization will have to take a leading role, in order to shepherd this regional project from concept to reality. The World Bank is ideally placed to lead the effort, but let us not forget our home-grown development institutions: CARICOM, CDB and the OECS.

The best way to get the best deal is to bid it out. Project preparation is an extremely expensive business; and someone has to make that “leap of faith” to take the project forward. In other words: spend money – a lot of it. Once we have this project champion/benefactor; we can then get on with the hard work of structuring and bidding out a regional ferry operation.

Just do it. This is a project that’s been dying to happen, for a long time. With the right support from regional governments and development institutions, this long-awaited, much-needed project can finally become a reality.

This article grew out of a consulting assignment Samuel undertook for the World Bank in preparing a paper entitled: “Improving Eastern Caribbean States’ Regional Competitiveness Through Tourism.”

S. Brian Samuel can be reached at stevenbriansamuel@gmail.com.

Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.

 

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