Turbulent recovery

Caribbean airports refurbished as international flights return to pre-pandemic levels but regional flights lag.

International travel and tourism are on the way back to pre-pandemic levels. Industry publications have reported a strong recovery in leisure travel, but with the widespread adoption of Zoom/Teams business travel is lagging. The recovery has been more nuanced in the Caribbean with international travel recovery rapidly but regional travel still struggling.

An aviation expert in Barbados gave us the local perspective, “International flights have recovered well post-pandemic: we are seeing about 80% of the airlift that we had in 2019 return. In fact, this year, budgets are 50% better than projected at the beginning of last year, so we are returning, more or less, to normal levels of international flights. Regionally, however we are not doing as well. We are doing badly. For example, you might have to take a flight from a Caribbean Island to Miami to get to another island. It’s very bad.”

“Regionally, […] you might have to take a flight from a Caribbean Island to Miami to get to another island. It’s very bad.”

Aviation expert, Miami

For many Caribbean nations the resumption of international tourism is a matter of economic survival and today, supported by international aid programs and loans from global institutions, many Caribbean states are developing new tourism infrastructure including the redevelopment of airports.

In the first quarter of 2023, the government of Bahamas announced the construction of a new international airport for Grand Bahama. Similarly, the expansion of the Barbados International Airport in Georgetown is also expected to be completed during the first half of 2023 after significant delays.

This is latest in a long line of similar projects, said a regional airport manager in the Caribbean, “Airports are being refurbished or expanded all over the Caribbean. Saint Lucia is moving forward a redevelopment project. The new Tobago airport should be completed in 2023. A new airport terminal in Turks and Caicos is expected to commence this year also, Dominica also has a new airport planned, I am not sure at what stage it is. There are opportunities across the region but investors must assess carefully the financial viability of each project.”

“Airports are being refurbished or expanded all over the Caribbean. There are opportunities across the region but investors must assess carefully the financial viability of each project.”

Regional airport manager, Caribbean

Conscious of their dependency on air transportation, the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines asked the Caribbean Development Bank (“CBD”) to examine their airlift capacity challenges. In response, the CDB approved a technical assistance grant to address the growing concerns of the governments in the region. The focus of CDB’s financial aid will be to provide technical consultancy service to increase the efficiency of inter-island air service, airport management services, and the provision for solution-based management plans.

Not everyone felt the studies were necessary, “The CDB has done many studies but what is the point of these studies? They go on the shelf and collect dust and not much else happens. The region needs real and practical solutions. It is not an easy market – regional transportation in the Caribbean is expensive and has become even more so as connectivity suffered following the collapse of LIAT.” In 2020, LIAT, a regional airline carrier owned by 11 Caribbean states, filed for bankruptcy.

These economic difficulties have also forced airports in the region to rethink their business models, a regional airport executive explained, “Traditionally, the region’s airports have been run as government utilities, not necessarily as commercial concessions or public-private-partnerships like elsewhere. This is starting to change though, I think that Jamaica and Barbados are moving in that direction and I think more will follow. As they seek to generate more revenue, airports are becoming more commercial, like big shopping malls, and this needs a new type of management.”

What’s the solution? The aviation expert doesn’t think it will be easy: “It’s never worked, even when we had LIAT and One Caribbean, they were not profitable. It doesn’t help that the governments are over-taxing regional flights. In my opinion a regional airline would need to have some sort of government intervention where you remove taxes on regional flights to make it profitable for any entity that would want to take it on. Then, ideally, you would bring outside airlines, Delta, American, etc. but even then, the numbers still probably don’t add up.”

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