LIAT leaves Melville Hall Airport
LIAT leaves Melville Hall Airport

As the deputy chairman of the Caribbean Young Democrats union – a centre-right alliance of moderate, centre-right and conservative political parties and individuals in the region – Luchiano Dupuis has had to travel the Caribbean frequently on business. Therefore, Dupuis knows first-hand, the cost of intra-regional travel.

"I would ask myself, but why is it so expensive to just leave Dominica to go to St Lucia who is right there, or I have to go to Antigua that's right there, and you pay basically almost US$400 for a one-way ticket?" Dupuis told The Sun.

There were times, he revealed, when he would cancel a trip because it was simply much too expensive. He listed as an example, cancelling business visits to Jamaica because the flight alone would cost well over US$1500.

"I have turned it off several times because I looked at the cost of the flight and I would say that I don't think I can make it on that kind of budget that was given to me by the organisation."

Any Dominican who has had to travel to Antigua, Barbados, the British or US Virgin Islands, St. Maarten or anywhere in the Caribbean can identify with Dupuis. In fact, across the region, virtually everyone who travels for business or leisure has complained about the high cost of intra-regional travel, with taxes and fees on tickets accounting for up to 60 per cent of the airfare.

It's not unusual to hear complaints that it's cheaper to travel to Miami or New York than it is to travel to a neighbouring country. And the people of the Caribbean have been speaking with their pockets by going to the US on holiday instead of visiting another Caribbean country, according to a 2018 study on regional air transportation by the Caribbean Development Bank.

The study found that intra-regional travel's share of total Caribbean travel declined from 15 per cent to nine per cent between 2012 and 2017, while travel from the Caribbean to extra-regional destinations increased by six per cent during the same period.

The issue of crippling taxes was raised with regional leaders in 2019 by Citizens Against High Intra-Regional Caribbean Travel Taxes, a group lobbying for a reduction in the taxes and fees on intra-regional travel, and which had launched a petition signed by 20,000 people at the time.

"In the Caribbean, this issue of cost is exacerbated by the TFCs [taxes, fees and charges] which, when added to the basic fares of carriers, serve to make overall ticket prices devastatingly expensive for passengers," argued Dalano R DaSouza, a spokesperson for the group, in a 2019 letter to Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders.

This strikes at the heart of the problem for Dupuis, who told The Sun it was time for the leaders to slash the taxes on tickets in order to encourage greater regional travel.

"I really want to see something along the lines where it is quite affordable to travel the region and experience the different cultures within the region that we could share," said Dupuis. "If the fares were more affordable, I would personally travel for leisure, but not only by myself, I would have friends as well to experience that kind of fun-filled travel that some people have never experienced in their life because of the cost of travelling in some parts of the Caribbean."

For more than two decades, Caribbean leaders have ignored the chorus of voices clamouring for lower airfares, as well as research that showed the high taxes to be counterproductive.

A study commissioned by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States in 2015 on the factors that impeded travel among the sub-grouping, found that travel within the region would increase if the governments lowered the taxes.

"We looked at the loss in taxes from the airports and compared it to the gain in hotel tax and all the various other taxes on land that the country benefits from and it was positive," said Ian Bertrand, a Trinidadian aviation consultant and former CEO of BWIA, who conducted the study. Among Bertrand's recommendations was a reduction of the taxes and fees over a trial period.

Which is what CARICOM leader finally agreed at their 42nd regular meeting held via videoconference on 5-6 July 2021. Facing a near collapse of the critical tourism industry due to COVID-19, the heads of government agreed "to consider proposals to reduce taxes on travel for a pilot period of six months," in addition to encouraging airlines "not to raise fares in such a manner as to negate the market benefit that would be derived from the reduction in travel taxes."

While Dominica has yet to indicate if it will implement the reduction, news of the CARICOM decision comes as music to the ears of Sam Raphael, the developer and managing director of Jungle Bay resort.

"This is a very timely and very interesting proposition. Whether it is the reduction in taxes or anything that will reduce the cost of travelling to islands in the Caribbean, specifically to Dominica, I think would be very well received and would have tremendous benefit to the island," Raphael told The Sun. "If CARICOM were to come together as a region and were to find ways to reduce the cost of travel between these islands, I think all the islands would benefit because I think you'd see a boon in regional travel, and secondly for those markets like Dominica, where they rely on regional travel as their primary source of getting persons here from the source market, I think it will be a trip."