Minister address in OECS Regional validation Workshop

St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda: Opening remarks by the Honourable Asot Michael, Minister of Tourism, Economic Development, Investment and Energy at the OECS Regional Validation Workshop on Factors Inhibiting Intraregional Travel, Jolly Beach Resort.

Mr. Master of Ceremonies,

Distinguished representatives from OECS countries including our colleagues from the French Caribbean, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, Mr. Hugh Riley, Mr. Roderick Soomer and other representatives from the OECS Commission, Ladies and gentlemen,

It is indeed an honor and pleasure for me to be able to welcome you here today to this very important meeting to discuss the issue of regional air transport within the eastern Caribbean.

Today’s meeting tackles one of the most difficult issues facing Caribbean tourism i.e. the problem of inter-regional travel and specifically inter regional air transport.

It is no secret that we face a tremendous battle in this regard. While international tourism continues to climb in most of our destinations, inter regional air travel – that is, travel within the Caribbean by Caribbean nationals and visitors – continues to show a precipitous decline.

OECS Regional Validation Workshop

OECS Regional Validation Workshop

In the case of Antigua and Barbuda, arrivals from the OECS have slipped from 18,740 in 2008 to 10,022 in 2014 – an almost 50% decline! While not all OECS countries may have witnessed such a dramatic collapse, I am confident in saying that we all share the concern of the continuing decline in passenger arrivals from within our region and a common desire to reverse this trend.

The reasons for wanting to reverse the trend are not difficult to identify. From the tourism perspective regional visitors provide at least two significant positive economic attributes. Firstly they are likely to travel outside of the peak season therefore providing stimulus to the tourism sector during the industry’s slow period. Secondly the regional market is particularly important for the small hotel sector comprising locally owned properties including apartments and guest houses. In all cases the regional traveler is an important contributor to the overall national and regional tourism picture with their expenditures on food and drink, accommodation, local transportation, entertainment and other goods and services.

An assessment of the factors driving this decline in inter-regional is likely to reveal, as the consultants have indicated in their report, a number of complex push and pull factors affecting the demand for inter-regional travel within the OECS.

Lesroy BrowneNeedless to say, for most Caribbean persons the key factor which they are likely to identify for the decline is the dramatic increase in the cost of air travel since 2008/2009. In fact the reduction in inter regional travel coincides with the escalation in ticket prices from those years.

However a number of other factors will also have contributed to the decline in inter-regional travel. Many of these stem from the development process itself, so that goods and services previously not available for example in Antigua but available in Dominica, are now available in Antigua possibly even in a virtual format over the internet. Each country now has its own international cricket facilities and its own music festival, so that the push and pull factors are constantly evolving and influencing the nature of the demand.

Notwithstanding these challenges, our administration is determined to restore growth in OECS and Caribbean arrivals into Antigua and Barbuda. This process has already begun with a major effort, for example, to restore international cricket through an enhanced relationship between government and the WICBC aimed at promoting the recent England tour as a major tourism promotional event. This has borne positive fruits with an encouraging number of regional and diaspora visitors coming for the match. We intend to continue to intensify such events which have potentially strong regional appeal.

We are also working to further develop the flow of ferry visitors from Guadeloupe coming on one day shopping excursions. This has emerged as a lucrative market for our downtown retailers, but itself reflects the challenges facing the regional travel industry as it is strongly impacted by the comparative strength of the Euro vis a vis the US dollar to which our EC currency is pegged. We are also working to refresh our annual carnival product to make it more attractive among the now extremely competitive tourism carnival offerings available within the region.

Most of these efforts will require air transportation that is able to meet the demands of the consumer for cost and convenience. Today’s conference is therefore particularly timely as it brings together airline, tourism and aviation representatives from public and private sectors to review the consultants findings and to advance practical measures that governments and other stakeholders must take to revitalize our internal OECS travel market.

asot michael oecsIn fact, the emphasis here must be on a comprehensive plan to tackle this issue: a plan that involves partnerships with hotels, governments, airlines, shopping outlets, and other potential beneficiaries of an enhanced inter OECS tourism market. This combined approach will be necessary if we are to be attractive to other regional and international destinations with which we compete for visitors.

In addition to challenges such as airline costs and schedules, visitors within our region are also subjected to the hassle of multiple security checks on single journeys, as well as to often repetitive and burdensome Visa and other immigration restrictions. It is particularly incumbent on this gathering to advance bold actions for ending, at the earliest opportunity, the extreme inconveniences associated with multiple security checks. If only that is achieved then today’s meeting would have scored a major triumph.

In terms of Visa restrictions, I urge that OECS countries give consideration to a harmonized Visa policy which would allow for a Visa issued by one OECS country to be valid throughout the sub-region. Such an approach already exists in the EU so that guidance already exists in that regard.

It is also time for a harmonized OECS approach to the adoption of US, Canadian, UK, or EU Visas as qualifying the visitor for visa-free entry into the OECS. I think we all recognize our own limitations in conducting the type of due diligence which those countries undertake in their immigration review processes and the difficulties which many visitors, or potential visitors, from certain potential markets face in trying to obtain Visas to travel to OECS countries. It is time for us to modernize these procedures using technological solutions while at the same time integrating our national systems in such a manner as to establish the OECS as a single tourism and travel space.

These measures will go a considerable way to establish our region as friendly to visitors while maintaining the security and other requirements of our domestic laws and international obligations. It is important to note that arrangements for facilitating inter-regional travel were adopted on a short term basis during Cricket World Cup eight years ago, so that what we are proposing here is by no means new or revolutionary.

Before closing let me say how pleased I am that we have with us here today representatives from the French Caribbean. It is my view that the solutions for regional tourism, including inter-island air transport, will require the participation of all of the islands and territories that comprise the eastern Caribbean. In terms of the wider French market we are also encouraged by recent changes to LIATs schedule which I am told should enhance the possibility for connecting passengers from Paris through Guadeloupe.

In general, we see tremendous opportunities for joint benefits from greater economic linkages in tourism and trade between the French territories and the OECS and we welcome the participation of Martinique and Guadeloupe in these important regional discussions.

Finally let me wish you fruitful and frank discussions. It is important that you provide OECS governments with a clear set of policies and measures for tackling the serious crisis affecting inter-regional travel within our region. I look forward to receiving your recommendations and report.

I also hope that you will have the opportunity to enjoy some of the sights and sound of Antigua and Barbuda during your short stay, starting with the beautiful and tranquil waters of Jolly Beach and the wonderful hospitality for which our people have become world famous.