FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — Airlift, air access, airline mergers and airline taxes figured heavily into the discussion topics at the recent Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Industry conference here.

Concerns surrounding the impact of consolidation in the U.S. airline industry were eased after tourism officials were reassured of the benefits the process could bring.

At a panel session appropriately titled “Fasten Your Seatbelts,” aviation specialists suggested that mergers, such as that proposed between American Airlines and US Airways, were unlikely to result in any reduction of airlift into the region.

CTO panel aviationInterest in the Caribbean continues to grow, with routes from the U.S. up by 30% since 2003, said Michael Lum, air service strategy and development consultant with Oregon-based Sixel Consulting Group.

Lum cited the entrance of JetBlue, Spirit and AirTran (a subsidiary of Southwest Airlines) into the region and the route expansion of legacy carriers as “contributing significantly to the overall growth spiral.”

“While the U.S. has a hold on 61% of air capacity to the Caribbean, Canada has performed well, having grown in capacity nearly 500% since 2003,” Lum said.

Canada now accounts for 10% of airlift capacity, behind Europe, at 17%, and Central and South America, at 12% collectively.

Ax that tax!

“Pay attention to minimizing operational constraints,” warned Christine Kennedy, network planning general manager for Delta Air Lines.

She urged the region to maintain close relationships with its airline partners and emphasized that cooperation and hard work, coupled with empirical data, “would continue to ensure that such marriages are lasting.”

“Sadly, cooperation with the region evades us, and high taxes as well as landing fees threaten the region’s attractiveness while cutting into the profitability of air carriers,” Kennedy said.

The subject of airline taxes came up again in a session that examined the realities of intra-Caribbean tourism.

Airline executives pointed to taxes as a main hindrance to the growth of intra-Caribbean travel.

Jaime Lopez-Diaz, CFO of Seaborne Airlines, described the government taxes on airlines as “extremely onerous” and predicted that more airlines could go bankrupt if the situation continues.

Panel moderator Brian Challenger, chairman of the Caribbean Aviation Task Force and former LIAT chairman, pointed out that other factors affecting intra-regional travel “include the price of travel, the general economic conditions regionally, immigration requirements and connectivity.”

While ferry transport between the islands as an alternative to air travel “seems like a good idea, there have been more ferry plans talked about since Noah built the ark,” Challenger said. “To date, the only ferry services that can bring travelers from one island country to another exist between the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands and between St. Lucia, Dominica, Martinique and Guadeloupe.”

The economies of the entire Caribbean region suffer because of the damages from taxes, according to Albert Kluyver, chairman of Insel Air, the national airline of Curacao that serves 16 destinations, including Charlotte and Miami.

“I would love to be able to offer a $39 fare to Curacao but even then, the taxes would be twice that,” he said.

If taxes were lowered, demand would increase, followed by supply, Kluyver opined.

Air transportation for an island state “represents the very breath of life for that island,” according to Jean-Yves Lacascade, deputy director for European affairs and the region of Martinique.

“Everyone should be permitted to fly wherever they want at a reasonable price,” he said.

There is no shortage of studies on air travel within the Caribbean, but “nothing happens,” Lacascade said. “We need a Caribbean solution to our Caribbean aviation problem.”

VanderpoolPeople-to-people

Solving the problem of getting visitors to the destination in a price-friendly, timely manner is one issue confronting the region; delivering authentic experiences that cannot be copied anywhere was discussed in another panel, moderated by Vincent Vanderpool Wallace, consultant for the Caribbean Tourism Development Co. and the former minister of tourism for the Bahamas.

“What cannot be duplicated are our Caribbean people,” Vanderpool Wallace said. “Their spirit cannot be beat. Every single island has unique experiences to offer visitors through its people, but we don’t integrate enough people-to-people opportunities and interchanges.”

At a small hotel, for example, the most memorable memories are created between guests and staff, according to Richard Doumeng, owner of Bolongo Bay Beach Resort in St. Thomas.

Doumeng also is president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association.

“My staff hangs out with our guests when they are off duty,” Doumeng said. “The bellman goes fishing with some of our guests, while the housekeepers and wait staff often spend their off-time mingling with our guests.”

Guest comments point to staff interaction as a prime reason for the high repeat guest ratio at Bolongo, Doumeng said.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.

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