The importance of air transport for the Caribbean is self-evident. As a result, many efforts and funds have been directed towards attempts to improve the Caribbean’s air transport competitiveness.
- A 2018 CDB working paper on regional air connectivity titled ‘Air Transport Competitiveness and Connectivity in the Caribbean’ outlined four scenarios that could improve intra-regional traffic demand by an estimated 1.2 million to 5.6 million passengers. It was focused on a combination of infrastructural improvements, reductions in taxes and fees, and the removal of policy barriers and redundancies.
- In 2019, Ralph Blanchard, CEO of Curacao Airport Partners made a series of strategic suggestions to improving regional connectivity varying from the establishment of a sinking fund to support essential air services, to the more technical aspects of harmonizing the region’s airspace into a single flight information region to create efficiencies in flight navigation.
- In 2020, the World Bank approved a series of ‘Caribbean Regional Air Transport Connectivity Projects’ totally US $159 Million for air transport developmental works in St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada and Haiti. The Bank’s country director stated, “This series of three projects aims to increase the safety and the overall resilience of key connection points in the Eastern Caribbean”.
The preceding are merely an inkling of the solutions and approaches put forward, but intra-regional transport woes have persisted with commensurate declines in intra-regional travel. Between 2012 and 2017, the CDB study showed that intra-regional travel declined 9% from 3 million to 2.6 million. Demand has been further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association estimated that intra-regional travel hovered around 30% of pre-pandemic levels in 2021 resulting in losses to the region of $1 billion.
There is little doubt that as Caribbean citizens we need desperate progress on the region’s air transport challenges.
In one such attempt, between the 14th– 16th June 2022, Caribbean Aviation professionals and policy makers will come together in St. Maarten at the CARIBAVIA conference to share ideas and witness presentations from decision makers and thought leaders both within and outside of the Caribbean. The conference’s stated aim is to examine ways to gain traction on a variety of issues facing the region’s air transport industry. Hence there are a variety of topics ranging from strategic approaches for destinations to engage with airlines to avoid route failures, to avenues for developing business and private aviation.
Why attempts to resolve regional air transport competitiveness issues are important to us all
Outlets focused on the region’s air transport challenges like the CARIBAVIA conference are important not really for issue identification, but rather to make incremental steps towards novel implementations. Conversations with anyone familiar with the region’s air transport environment almost unanimously end with consensus around the problems. I distinctly recall an interaction with a Barbadian based executive who put it bluntly. In his words “Everyone knows the problems, what we need is someone to take the bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground”. As the only Caribbean focused aviation conference, CARIBAVIA so far provides the only outlet for those with interest in the specific challenges surrounding Caribbean aviation to come together pursue remedies- but why are such ventures important.
Our reality as a region, is that the impact of inadequacies in our air transport industry are neither benign nor are they theoretical. I believe that for small island developing states like ours, aviation is a critical pillar for the region’s development. The strategic planning and coordinating of aviation growth supports not only tourism demand but at a more comprehensive level is about social development and trade in high value goods and services both intra and extra regionally.
I have sought to argue in a previous commentary that tourism has to be the region’s way of using its domestic industries to make our living in the world. It creates an efficient link between our exports and the global community’s ability to experience/ sample such.
To this extent, air transport becomes a critical medium which supports holistic regional social development gains because market access comprehensively becomes about tourism demand and export potential. Aviation’s role in trade is substantial. It accounts for over 35 % of global trade by value.
To this end, Barbados’ efforts to widen its reach to Africa and the Middle East are exciting and highly commendable at the country level. But it can also prove beneficial at a wider regional level not only for tourism but for all of the trade opportunities which tourism and therefore air transport will open to these new markets.
Realising these benefits at a regional level requires acceptance, coordination and collaboration on airlift where strategically identified regional hubs serve not only the connectivity interests of host countries but that of other islands. I therefore argue that regional air transport ‘coopetition’ is critical to our development which makes resolving efficiencies in the intra-regional transport system all the more necessary.
Air transport undoubtedly has a role in our effective ability as a region to trade and also to propel the socio-cultural integration that ultimately realises our personal and collective goals and ambitions. At the 39th Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government in Jamaica, Prime Minister Mia Mottley asserted “The Single domestic space for hassle free intra-regional travel must be a place where we must start if we are serious about the single market and the single economy”.
In the 21st century globalized society and economy. Air transport is not a luxury, it is fundamental to wealth generation and social development; to improving demand for our goods and services in the global community and; to any effort at this region’s integration.
Initiatives like the CARIBAVIA conference offer some added impetus towards advancing some of the novel ideas and industry discussion that ensures air transport fully redounds to our benefit. For at the time of writing, with base fares from Barbados- Miami June 20th-24th at US$415 US, in comparison to US$550 from Barbados- Antigua, what we need now more than ever is the rigorous pursuit of coordinated and strategic regional aviation strategies.
If regional travel is to rebound and if we are then to reverse the previous declining trend, and if aviation is to fulfil its broader development potential for our region, we need concerted regional action.
I hope therefore to meet you in St. Maarten at CARIBAVIA.
Kareem Yarde is a young, avid proponent of tourism and air transport’s developmental potential. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.