Airline Politics in the Eastern Caribbean

The week of April 18th has seen St Kitts occupying a special place for those of us interested in the regional travel and tourism sector.  In St Kitts, Tourism Ministers from across the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) converged for the 10th meeting of the OECS Council of Tourism Ministers.  The theme was: ‘OECS Economic Union: Strategic Considerations for Tourism’.

At a time when the wider CARICOM grouping is not progressing as quickly as many of us would like, the OECS Secretariat is trying to push forward.  Personally I am skeptical about nations which are to some extent, competing tourist destinations, embarking on a single OECS marketing and branding strategy.  A part of me hopes that in time, I will be proven wrong but for now, I remain skeptical.

Obviously the agenda included issues related to intra-regional travel in the OECS.  The pre meeting press release quoted Dr. Loraine Nicholas, Programme Officer for Tourism at the OECS Secretariat’s Economic Affairs Division as saying that - “… Ministers will seek to devise innovative, strategic responses to the constraints in the air transportation sector that are inimical to travel within the OECS; as well as consider mechanisms to facilitate seamless intra-regional travel via both land and sea.”  She goes on to say that “the outcome of these discussions will be used as a platform for establishment of the OECS region as a single tourism economic space, consistent with the ideals underlying the proposed OECS Economic Union.”

One item under intra-regional travel would have been LIAT.  To what extent should OECS members continue to protect LIAT?  On one side, there are some OECS governments, most notably Antigua and St Vincent, which have a financial stake in LIAT and want to protect it.  On the other side we have islands like St Lucia which recognize that tourism depends on affordable and reliable airlift, which means encouraging competition.  Should LIAT be protected from Caricom Airways and Caribbean Airlines (CAL) / Air Jamaica?

This OECS Tourism Ministers meeting would have considered REDjet among the potential threats to LIAT.  At the moment, REDjet is on the outside of the OECS looking in, but this newcomer would eventually seek to serve OECS markets after it establishes itself in Barbados – Trinidad – Guyana – Jamaica.  Barbados may be REDjet’s base of operations but REDjet is actually incorporated in St Lucia, so I would not be surprised if St Lucia becomes their first OECD destination. IRS Singapore

Returning to Trinidad however, much confusion appears to exist as to whether REDjet has been given permission to fly or not.  REDjet is not the national carrier of Barbados, but is apparently a designated carrier of Barbados.  As such, one assumes that under the terms of our relationship with Barbados, Barbados has certain expectations.  Specifically, Barbados has allowed CAL (and its predecessor BWIA) entry into its territory and may be expecting that the same courtesy be extended to its designated carrier.  Permission should be granted once the proper procedure is respected.

From a marketing and branding point of view, one has to admire REDjet for creating so much excitement for a service that technically does not yet exist.  Online, the battle between CAL and REDjet is intensifying.  Given the low cost carrier (LCC) distribution model, which depends on the internet, REDjet must win the online battle.  As of April 18th, REDjet has just under 16 000 fans on their Facebook page whereas CAL has just under 7 000.  These numbers do not mean that the battle is already won.  It just means that REDjet supporters are more motivated. 

Last October, Facebook (co?)creator Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying that Facebook likes the underdog.  He was speaking about Bing but I believe that Zuckerberg was making a powerful point.  It would appear that at this stage in its evolution, social networks are leveraged more effectively by groups who perceive themselves as underdogs.  Consider the 2008 Obama campaign, the recent unrest in the Middle East or the national elections here in 2010.  Much academic research is available to support this – check it out!  I say this to make a single point.  I have noticed some negative online campaigns against REDjet.  These attacks only serve to make REDjet stronger.    

My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country.   Happy Easter to all.  As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land.  Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in the future of our beloved country.  

Derren is a travel and tourism consultant.  The views and opinions expressed here are solely the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of any company or institution affiliated with the writer. 

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