Despite the increase in cruise ships to St Vincent and the Grenadines in the last few months, local taxi operators continue to feel as though they are being squeezed out of an industry upon which most, if not all of their income is derived.
The presidents of the two local taxi associations told SEARCHLIGHT this week that work in this season has only been trickling in, although most taxi operators have taken the necessary steps to ensure that they adhere to established COVID-19 cruise protocols.
It is also felt that agents of cruise vessels, who also organize tours for passengers have the most control over the industry.
“ Don’t tell me these guys go and get vaccinated and now they can’t get a job. That is unfair. I’m not speaking for me. I’m not vaccinated but I’m speaking for my members who are feeling the brunt at the end of it,” Arrington Burgin, president of the SVG Professionals Taxi Association told SEARCHLIGHT in an interview this week.
Burgin noted that only 18-seater taxis are being utilized by tour operators, all while leaving out taxis that have smaller seating numbers.
The SVG Professionals Taxi Association president also accused a specific company of paying some taxi operators at one rate and others at a lower rate.
“The government not helping. We tried to negotiate and try but they don’t see us. They give the public the impression that they’re so with us and they want to help but they don’t want to help us. They don’t,” Burgin said.
The president said just over 50 per cent of his association members are vaccinated.
And for him, a reasonable arrangement would involve vaccinated taxi operators to operate within the cruise bubble and without the involvement of tour companies.
“I don’t have a problem with the bubble but when Coreas is determining who works and who don’t work, that’s unfair and If they don’t want them to walk out on the street, that’s all well and good but taxi drivers who are vaccinated should be allowed to enter the port, whether you allow five at a time, and when people come off, they go with that five and then a next set is let in, who is vaccinated,” he added.
This country’s Minister of Tourism, Carlos James announced two changes to cruise protocols in November; one of which allows passengers to disembark and visit sites freely with limited restrictions.
James, who was speaking at a press conference, said he believed these non-bubble tours would help provide more jobs for local taxi operators who may want to take cruise passengers to locations and sites that are not necessarily a part of local agents’ bookings.
But according to the president of the SVG Taxi Association, Winston “Pops” Morgan, these opportunities have been few since the announcement was made.
“We got about two or three fellas who got jobs and that is not really an improvement or back to what we are used to and we would really like for people to come off. I mean we are vaccinated, we have followed all the protocols. We are licensed by the Tourism Authority and we would like for us to operate within the bubble,” Morgan told SEARCHLIGHT.
“Persons come off, hire us if they have earmarked places they can go within the bubble, that we take these persons there and have them go back to the ships safely. But as it is, we’re not really getting any of that, the president added.
Like Burgin, Morgan also said that the bubble system gives agents a significant amount of control over the industry.
And in addition to sourcing work through cruise agents, Morgan said taxi operators have to wait weeks before they are paid.
He added that some drivers have been waiting at least five weeks to be paid by a particular agency.
“To me, the Tourism Authority is acting as though they are pointless when it comes to this. They know that they license us and we have to get licensed and adhere to protocols and so on but when it comes to working to get things back to some semblance of normalcy so we can ply our trade and get jobs, it seems like the agents have all the power,” he said, adding that about 70 per cent of his members are fully vaccinated.
Morgan also said that, “there are those who are making gimmicks and mockery of those who took the vaccines and so on because they are saying now, you take the vaccine and you’re not getting any work just like them who didn’t take it .
“And we are told that the government relaxed the protocols so persons could walk off and access sites but the ships are saying no, they want everything in a bubble,” he added.
More than 200 cruise calls are expected to be made to SVG this season. In at least 13 of these cases the ships will be making their first call to the destination.