Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly Farley Augustine is calling for foreign travellers to pay the true cost to fly between Trinidad and Tobago.
Amid growing concern about the limited number of flights to Tobago, and Caribbean Airlines’ rebuttal that the cost of flying to Tobago resulted in losses for the company, even with sold-out flights, the price to fly to Tobago was increased by $50 per flight during Monday’s budget presentation.
The price on the Seabridge was raised from $50 to $75 one way for a standard ticket and from $100 to $150 for a premium ticket, while pensioners who previously travelled for free will now be charged $25 one way.
The price increases will take effect from January.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert said during the presentation, that the current subsidy stood at $100m.
“I propose to increase the cost of inter-island air travel for all tickets by $50 as follows. The one-way fare on the airbridge will now move from $150 to $200. The estimated increase in annual revenue to Caribbean airlines for the operation of the air bridge will be $50m, which with this increased price will still require a subsidy of the air bridge by over $50 million a year,” said the Finance Minister.
The Chief Secretary felt there was another way to address the gap in the costs for Caribbean Airlines.
Speaking on CNC3’s post budget show, the Chief Secretary said, “I think the first consideration we have to make is, asking whether the subsidy should be available to foreigners, to international visitors,” said Augustine, “I think international visitors are ok with paying what the real fare is.
“I think the first consideration we must make is whether or not we wish to keep the subsidy for our international visitors.”
Augustine’s suggestion was challenged by Minister in the Ministry of Finance Brian Manning, who asked if such a move could have a detrimental impact on tourism.
Manning asked, “If tourists are the life’s blood of Tobago’s economy, why would you want to penalise tourists for coming to Tobago?”
However, Augustine believed such a move would not be seen as a penalty by tourists as he pointed out that several countries around the world did not offer subsidised travel to tourists within its borders, including some of Trinidad and Tobago’s Caricom counterparts like Jamaica and the Bahamas.
“I don’t see it as penalising tourists for coming to Tobago. Tourists are accustomed all over the world to that sort of fare, if you look at what it costs to fly between the islands in the Bahamas, they pay it. Once you have a good tourist product, they will come,” he said.
The Chief Secretary felt that there should be greater dialogue with Caribbean Airlines and the Inter-Island Ferry service to ensure that there are adequate trips between the islands to support the tourism sector.
He said,” If you talk to the practitioners in the tourism industry in Tobago, they will tell you that they experience quite a lot of cancellations because people just cannot get access. Even with the Carnival that is coming up later in October, the resounding cry is people saying we cannot get tickets to fly up. Or to say that they are all sold out.”
He pointed out that before the pandemic there were 24 round trips made by Caribbean Airlines between the islands while now there are only 12.
He said, “So the load is practically half of what it was prior to COVID, so the point is not so much whether or not there are available planes or available boats or ferries and the point I was making is that we need to work out with Caribbean Airlines, with the ferry service, an economically beneficial way through which we can increase the offerings because we appreciate that for every flight up and down some subsidies are attached to that.”
Caribbean Airlines said that the operational costs for the airbridge in June 2022 totalled US$18,777,648 with the cost per flight hour standing at US$17,306
The airline said, “The high costs are driven by the frequency of flights and the short distance (52 miles) leading to an undesirable low block hour utilisation of aircraft and crews and maintenance costs—US$17,306 per flight hour. Nonetheless, the domestic schedule (inclusive of peak travel periods) considers the essential nature of the service, events and activities in Tobago, the total number of passengers over a twelve-month period and other information relevant to its operation.”