By Vishani Ragobeer
INTRA-REGIONAL travel should be made easier, especially as tourism-dependent Caribbean countries contend with the effects of COVID-19, according to the former Director of Economics at the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), Dr. Justin Ram.
“I think that it is high time for us to consider how we make the movement of people easier, that we should consider not having any restrictions on the free movement of labour and I also think we need to look at how people move around, (that is), how costly it is,” Dr. Ram said while speaking at an online forum organised by the Guyana Economic Development Trust (GEDT). This forum focused on the Caribbean’s post-pandemic recovery.
Dr. Ram has been a long-time advocate for easier intra-regional travel, citing that there are greater benefits to be garnered through this. Speaking at a forum in Guyana last year, he made known that, over the last 10 years, a majority of Caribbean citizens were travelling extra-regionally, particularly to destinations in North America and Europe, while intra-regional travel declined. That decline, he asserted, was due to the high taxes and fees.
At the recent GEDT forum, he explained that, typically, 40 to 60 per cent of the airfare for intra-regional travel is made up of taxes and fees from the individual countries. However, he reasoned that if the taxes and fees are reduced, governments may be able to recoup those funds through money spent in the countries.
Added to the easier intra-regional travel of people, he posited that the movement of goods and services within the region should be made easier too. Once this is done, he said that ordinary persons in the private sector will be able to capitalise on entrepreneurial activities, which will lead to the growth of Caribbean economies. And, once the economies begin growing, he explained that governments will, in turn, receive more taxes and revenue.
“We need to consider the Caribbean as a single economic space, because when you add up all the small population sizes, you come up with a significant market,” Dr. Ram said.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has reported that due to many Caribbean countries’ high dependence on tourism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and its resulting ramifications have been particularly harsh to those economies. In fact, the IMF reported that tourism-dependent countries are expected to record negative growth in their real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by a massive 10.3 percent this year.
Cognisant of this, Caribbean governments have been looking into ways of restarting tourism in the Caribbean, while safeguarding from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
At the Caribbean Community (CARICOM)’s 50th Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED), held in May, leaders mulled over the reopening of borders for intra-regional travel.
Grenadian Minister with responsibility for CARICOM and chairperson of that COTED Meeting, Oliver Joseph, indicated that the CARICOM Member states were planning to open the countries’ borders for regional travel only and not international air traffic, during the first phase of reopening borders. The reopening of borders was tentatively set for June 2020.
Chairperson of CARICOM and Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, alluded to CARICOM leaders pondering over making intra-regional travel easier, at least during this pandemic period.
While being interviewed on Trinidad and Tobago (T&T)’s CNC3 news earlier this week, the Chairperson explained that the CARICOM leaders have decided that travel should only be re-opened to low-risk areas; and with the Caribbean recording fairly good management of the coronavirus pandemic, it qualifies as a low-risk area.
“We believe that there are opportunities for Caribbean people to prefer to come within the Caribbean rather than go to countries that are inundated with COVID-19 at this point in time,” she said, relating that intra-regional travel can be “promoted” at this time.
However, she was unsure whether CARICOM would mandate that countries lower airport taxes or look into lowering the cost of airfare- given that quite a few countries are stakeholders in regional carriers: Caribbean Airlines Limited and LIAT Airways.