A Caribbean Ferry Service?
February 6, 2024
A Caribbean Ferry Service?

How many times has this promise been dangled in front of us in the last few years? As the regional airline service became more unreliable and outrageously expensive, there have been several announcements of a regional ferry service which even occupied the attention of CARICOM Heads of Government. It went as far as a supposed schedule being published with starting dates and all, emphasizing that it would be cheaper, more convenient and reliable than available air services.

All this was happening as the only truly regional air service that we could count on, LIAT 1974 Ltd, was going through what turned out to be its death throes. By a twist of fate, the latest pronouncement on the promised regional ferry came just as LIAT was announcing its final flight. Maybe we were supposed to feel that all is not lost. Is this initiative intended as a palliative? Those behind it have promised that the proposed venture will offer a reliable service to the Eastern Caribbean and would have positive economic spinoffs.

Welcome as any regional ferry service undoubtedly would be, there are still many unanswered questions. In an area where the people in the various islands can literally see their counterparts in neighbouring islands, it is ridiculous that water should be a barrier to our collective development.

Why should the sea be a drawback to our freedom of movement in the Caribbean?

The case for a regional ferry does not have to be made again.

If we take the area from Guyana up to the Leeward Islands, there is a population of almost 4 million people and a potential tourist market of more than 3 million, just waiting to be served. From a customer level the case is already made.

Yet we have been unable to make this a reality. We have had a flurry of announcements in recent weeks including one by the governments of Guyana, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago for instance of the impending formation of a company to provide ferry services not only between these three countries but with extensions to other countries in the Windward islands.

Then CEO of Windward Ferries Tore Torsteinson who will be also be in charge of the ferry division of the lead company “Connect Caribe” disclosed that his company is in discussions with regional leaders about how to operationalize the project. He said that plans are to use vessels with a capacity of up to 800 passengers plus cargo with a modest standard fare of US $100 plus government charges. (Airline experience has been that such charges can be significant). He disclosed that it is planned to begin operations by late 2024, starting with the Guyana-Trinidad-Barbados route and expanding to other islands to the north, including SVG.

A number of issues need to be clarified. First, is this a joint private sector/public sector one or entirely a private sector investment? What is the expected role of the government(s) in it?

Which governments will be involved? Then, related to this first issue is the matter of investment funding. Are government subsidies envisaged? Or will governments be expected to provide the enabling environment – legislative, administrative and otherwise?

Then there is, of course, the critical matter of the viability of such an enterprise. There are a lot of lessons we ought to have learnt from LIAT- some very bitter pills to swallow. Let us not be innocent lambs going to the slaughter this time. It is time for us to demonstrate our maturity as a developing people, committed to regionalism and conscious what such an enterprise can do for regional development. Some clarity please!