Living in the time of COVID-19 has underscored how difficult it is to maintain our distance. Many of us are longing for a time when we can feel comfortable to reconnect with our family and friends and restart regular economic activity. Here in the Caribbean, with connections and relations spread across the region, intra-island travel is frequent. Travel serves to deepen relationships, enhance trade, and leads to a deeper regional connection. Whether it’s travelling to carnivals or to watch a cricket match or exploring business opportunities on another island, air travel brings the Caribbean people together.
Airports make such travel fast and frequent and are the portal for the rest of the world to experience the Caribbean. Nearly 9.1 million tourists visited the Caribbean in 2019, and a large number of those pass through airports. No doubt, those numbers will be different for 2020 with border closures and the halt in tourism. However, while the borders are closed now, it is an opportune time to prepare for when we are travelling again.
In addition to passenger travel, air transport is also essential for facilitating trade for island nations. The volume of freight attributed to air transport in the Caribbean small states increased over 50% between 2016 and 2018. While you may not see cargo moving through airports, some of what you will be purchasing – including food – travels by air. This is not only true for imports but exports as well.
Recently, the World Bank worked with the Governments of Dominica, Grenada and Saint Lucia to develop a series of projects to improve their airports and air transport sectors. US$75 million will be used to improve safety and resilience of the air transport sector in these countries, and another $84m project was also approved for Haiti. Airport improvements will directly provide more safety and comfort to travelers. The new projects will help these airports comply with international safety standards and will improve connectivity in the Caribbean.
Connecting the region is a priority for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). In his final address for 2019, CARICOM’s Secretary General, Ambassador Irwin Larocque said that an increase in air travel can boost growth and employment. Air travel can play an important role in stimulating economic activity throughout the region and in supporting continued regional integration and cooperation.
Countries in the Eastern Caribbean are at high risk from natural disasters. The new projects will provide critical infrastructure and equipment to support increased resilience of the airports and the air transport sector. As we are learning, air travel is also vulnerable not only to climate related disasters, but also to other crises, like the current pandemic. When speed is essential, supplies, equipment and personnel are rapidly flown in to provide support where it is most needed.
Notwithstanding risks, airports are the gateway to opportunities. Airports can become a catalyst to regenerate economic activity as the small island states begin to reopen. Improvements in the air transportation sector will help meet the future flow of travelers, whether visiting family, coming for business, or to enjoy the sun, sea and sand of the Caribbean. Looking ahead, the Caribbean is preparing to welcome these travelers