Friday, June 20, 2014

What are the opportunities for the Caribbean?

OVER the past two weeks I did some travelling within the Caribbean, first to Suriname and then to St Kitts. In between I was also asked to go to a South American country, but decided against it because of the amount of travelling time it would take. The itinerary would look something like, leave Jamaica at 2:30 pm and get to Suriname at 1:30 am (11:30 am Jamaica time), or 11 hours travelling time; leave Suriname to Curacao then up to Miami (three hours) and then an eight hour flight to South America; then leave South America to Miami and back to Jamaica; and then leave Jamaica to Miami (1.5 hours) and then to St Kitts (three hours) and then reverse the trip on the way home. Not to mention that it is more expensive to get to a location the same distance away in the Caribbean than it is to get to somewhere in North America.

Usually when you do a trip down to Trinidad or Barbados you curse the time it takes to get there, but don’t usually do much reflection on how much of a challenge it is for development within the region. The fact is that it is easier to get to Europe and North America than it is to travel within the region.

It occurred to me also that this is a significant reason why intraregional trade is not maximised, and the region has not developed to its full potential.

Our tourism officials have worked tirelessly over the years to ensure that we have most if not all the North American airlines coming to Jamaica.

The first issue of the lack of progress with intraregional trade and synergy is obvious. The fact is that unless we are able to improve the ease of travelling throughout the region, then regionalism, at the trade and other levels will suffer. In my view it is therefore necessary for the regional governments to get together and look at regional travel if we are serious about developing Caricom. In addition to this though, if we are truly serious about developing Caricom, then it is very important for there to be free movement of goods and people throughout the region.

It is, in my view, because of the lack of this freedom of movement and ease of travel why countries in the region prefer to look towards North America for trade and labour movement. This is evidenced by the size of the Caribbean diaspora in North America and the trade with North America.

The examples of Suriname and St Kitts show the opportunities that are available to us for development, if only we could address the structural issues of transport and movement of people and goods.

Both countries are excellent tourist destinations, and I think Suriname in particular has a lot of opportunities for development because it not only has good tourism potential, but also has other industries such as gold, bauxite, agriculture etc. St Kitts, on the other hand, because of its size can’t take advantage of industries like agriculture but has vast potential for tourism and international services, which I gather they are trying to develop. The Marriot Hotel in St Kitts in particular is an excellent product, as I was very much impressed with the service and the food. And my comparison is based on the service levels at Sandals, which is at the highest standard globally.

The disadvantage for both countries, however, is the ability to get there. This is certainly one of the advantages that Jamaica has, which we don’t realise enough. Our tourism officials have worked tirelessly over the years to ensure that we have most if not all the North American airlines coming to Jamaica, and have been opening up routes from South America, Europe, and Asia. It helps, of course, that we have an excellent geographic location and brand, but one could argue that the travel connectivity has some responsibility for our brand recognition.

It is this connectivity to the world, through airline travel primarily, why our people are able to visit and open up markets with other countries. The ability to travel easily between Jamaica and those countries has created an identification with the cultures that is essential for business. This is a challenge we have to deal with if we want to get into the South American market in a big way. It is a big market, with many opportunities, but unless we can understand and infiltrate the culture, then it is going to prove difficult to access the markets.

If we look, for example, at trade within the region, Jamaica does relatively more trade with Trinidad than any other Caribbean country, and also has strong ties with Barbados in terms of people movement. We also have Trinidadian and Barbadian companies invested in Jamaica, more so than other Caribbean nationals. The main reason for this I think is because of the connections made through the UWI, as students travel to the various campuses to complete their studies, and at the same time make lifelong connections. In other words, there is an infusion of the cultural aspects.

This trade and business relationship between Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados proves that as a region we can do much more together, than we are doing today, particularly with the smaller islands. Again using Suriname and St Kitts as examples, if we had easier travel arrangements with them then they would be much better vacation destinations than just travelling to Florida to spend time in the shopping mall.

My own view is that there are a lot of opportunities to be had by the region being more accessible to other countries, including the Caribbean; and if we also promoted easier movement of people. Because our primary areas of comparative advantage are tourism, added value services, and agriculture, it is even more important for our markets to be accessible. So for example, it would be foolhardy of us to try and promote tourism while at the same time having strict visa requirements. Why then do we create a perception that there is a problem with movement of nationals and goods within the region and expect that Caricom will prosper?

Therefore before we start talking about growing CARICOM as a unit, shouldn’t we address the challenges of market accessibility? That is, of course, if we are serious about it.