LEADERS within the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are expected to meet next week and consider short-term proposals for the reduction of intra-regional travel taxes which would result in cheaper airline tickets and the restart of tourism in a travel bubble, according to Chairman of CARICOM, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne.
Browne told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday night that the resumption and intensification of regional tourism was a topical matter discussed during the two-day Heads of Government conference.
The tourism-dependent economies of the Caribbean, according to recent World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, have been particularly hard-hit by the restrictions imposed to control the spread and devastation of the novel coronavirus.
Last year, these Caribbean countries experienced negative economic growth as the travel and tourism sector came to a grinding halt.
This year, some countries have started to permit travel but the tourism sector, which garners much of the region’s revenues, has not yet rebounded.
As such, the Prime Minister stated: “We recognise the need to reopen economies while balancing the health and economic livelihood of community nationals and agreed that new protocols for health, safety, visitor management and sanitation protocols were of utmost importance in encouraging the resuscitation of the tourism sector.”
Cognisant of this need, he related that the heads of government agreed to consider proposals for the reduction of taxes for intra-regional travel during a pilot period of six months.
Additionally, the group agreed to consider proposals for the creation of a regional travel bubble, also for a pilot of six months.
He later clarified that the parameters for such considerations have not been fully established but it is expected that there will be another meeting sometime next week to iron out those details and make final determinations.
That meeting, he said, will benefit from “expert input” from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).
The reduction of travel taxes has long been a consideration of CARICOM in an attempt to decrease the exorbitant cost of plane tickets to travel from one Caribbean country to the next.
And, Prime Minister Browne assured reporters that there is a commitment to consider these proposals in an attempt to spur regional travel.
Previously, however, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have gone ahead with such efforts.
“As far as the travel bubble goes, I know for sure there is a commitment to facilitate the movement of vaccinated individuals,” he related.
For unvaccinated individuals, he said that strict testing protocols would have to be instituted because the aim is to ensure that there is no scope for travel to contribute to increases in COVID-19 spread and infection.
Beyond helping to boost tourism and help regional economies recover, the Prime Minister emphasised that such a move would help to resuscitate the regional airlines that have been financially challenged during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister also spoke of CARICOM’s ambitious goal of ensuring that the region manages to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19 by the end of this year. Herd immunity will occur once about 80 per cent of the population is immune to the disease. Vaccination is a way of ensuring immunisation.
Not only will achieving herd immunity allow businesses to return to some level of normalcy and help advance economic revival efforts, but Prime Minister Browne said that this immunity would also help protect citizens from the emerging, threatening variants of COVID-19.
Herd immunity is contingent upon the Caribbean region securing adequate supplies of the COVID-19 vaccines. Currently, however, vaccine supplies are limited and Caribbean countries have been short-changed by the COVAX facility.
Still, with promised supplies from the United States, the African union and other bilateral platforms, the Prime Minister said that CARICOM is “confident” that it will be able to secure sufficient vaccines to achieve herd immunity by year end.