Brian Major | November 17, 2015 12:45 PM ET
Easing Regional Air Access Key To The Caribbean’s Tourism Future
In his opening address at the inaugural Caribbean Tourism Summit and Outlook Seminar in 2012, Josef Forstmayr, then president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) decried the Caribbean’s “total lack of a comprehensive, user-friendly transportation network.”
Forstmayr’s frustration was not with Caribbean-bound flights departing from North American gateways, as that part of the network is actually relatively extensive. Instead he was discussing air transportation within the Caribbean region, which is in many cases uneven and in some cases virtually impossible.
In many cases it’s far easier for a Caribbean resident or visitor to fly to Miami than to a neighboring Caribbean island, as only a handful of regional airlines offer scheduled, point-to-point service. The process is made more difficult by tight visa restrictions among Caribbean nations that further restrict regional travel.
In that 2012 address, Forstmayr said poor regional air service led to a two-thirds decline in intra-Caribbean travel between 2006 and 2010. “It is not only having a significant negative effect on our tourism but also on the West Indian culture and way of life,” he said.
The Caribbean’s inefficient air network not only impacts residents eager to visit and work in other Caribbean countries, but leisure travelers as well. Travel agents, resort operators and service providers are losing untold amounts from vacationers who might spend more time in the region with the benefit of cheap and efficient air access to nearby Caribbean destinations.
Yet while Caribbean tourism stakeholders continue to grapple with the region’s difficult air network three years after Forstmayr’s assertions, the region’s stakeholders may be close to a few solutions.
For example at last month’s Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) State of the Industry Conference (SOTIC) in Curacao, Lionel de Walt, Caribbean area manager for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) pointed to Aruba, which recently implemented systems to ease passengers’ flow through Queen Beatrix International Airport.
“Aruba has done an amazing job using futuristic technology, starting a project named Happy Flow which turned out hugely successful,” he said. “Now they have a telemetric system in place with biometric passport control. On average they are processing 2.6 times more passengers in an hour through automated gates than what was possible in conventional booths with a border control officer.”
Moreover, de Walt said an IATA task force is working on “[an] Advance Passenger Information project” that will speed many areas of regional air travel including border security and processing. The initiative will ultimately allow airports to reduce space currently dedicated to multiple checkpoints, he said.
Unfortunately, “Not all countries are part of this project and for Curacao, for example, it means that they have to introduce their own biometric passport control system which is expensive,” said de Walt.
Other tourism officials support the concept of reducing intra-Caribbean barriers to travel. “Nowadays there is no border passport control in EU countries,” said Carlos Vogeler, executive secretary of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). “We need to put mechanisms in place by means of which this can be realized in the Caribbean as well.”
Added Vogeler, “Travel facilitation encompasses visas, border crossing processes, taxes, connectivity, aviation, travel modality [and] hospitality. If there is efficiency and if the tools are available, it can be done.”
IATA officials hope to create a more efficient Caribbean air network through strategies that have worked in other areas, said de Walt.
“One of the wins we had was with one-stop security at airports,” he said. “This is aimed to prevent consecutive screenings during transits at other airports within the same (overseas) territories, for example the Netherlands.”
But for such efforts to succeed in the Caribbean, governments must work together, he said. “To implement this, there is need for political will. It requires trust,” said de Walt. “Countries must be able to (trust) that other countries have the same level and standard of security.”
Among the first steps Caribbean governments must take to enhance air access is to improve visitor-related record keeping, said de Walt. “We have a big issue with data in the Caribbean. We need to get this together,” he said. “Without the data we cannot make or support the case and without that politicians are not going to be willing to drop visa and checkpoint restrictions.”
Vogeler agreed, adding “Whatever we cannot measure we cannot defend, hence the importance of the data. Countries must be able to produce statistics in accordance with certain defined methodology so that the data can become available and be presented uniformly.”
There’s little doubt that the Caribbean, “the most tourism dependent region in the world” in the words of Earlston McPhee, a Bahamas tourism ministry official, will need to employ these and other strategies to continue the region’s critical tourism growth.
“It is important to have reliable data, to see trends and make forecasts,” said Mc Phee. “It is important to have the data at hand when discussing matters in a political setting.” For the sake of intra-Caribbean travel and the region’s tourism future, it’s difficult to imagine how those goals could be less important.
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