By Linda Hutchinson-Jafar
February 11, 2007
PORT-OF-SPAIN – As much as there is enthusiasm and excitement about the upcoming ICC Cricket World Cup 2007 being played in venues across the Caribbean, there is also concern about the impact the single visa requirement will have on some major tourism markets in Europe and Scandinavian countries.
It has already triggered fears of widespread cancellations and a fallout in tourist arrivals for some of our countries that are dependent on this segment of the market.
President of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association, Rene Seepersadsingh reported that some hotels in the tourist island are already receiving cancellations while European tour operators were threatening to take their business away from the island and the Caribbean to other destinations that did not require a visa.
He was emphatic that it was going to hurt Tobago tourism very badly and it will be a hard job to get the European tour operators back.
Like other hoteliers in the Caribbean, Seepersadsingh did not know on what basis Scandinavian countries were required to get a CARICOM visa for travel to the Caribbean, when there was never a requirement before.
He added that the decision to impose the special visa came as a surprise as there were no prior discussions on it with hoteliers.
Tobago's Tourism Secretary Neil Wilson is already estimating that the new visa requirements would negatively affect 15 per cent of the tourist traffic.
"As far as I am aware, not a ball is going to be bowled in Tobago and not a single hotel room has been booked in Tobago for the World Cup. I can't visualise how this event would benefit the island. It may benefit the region but that is a price that we have to pay for being part of a CARICOM state," Wilson declared.
Bernadette Nathaniel of the Trinidad Hotels, Restaurant & Tourism Association said apart from the fallout from European tourists, she was also concerned about visitors from Latin America, a growing market that is showing interest in the twin-island state.
Nathaniel said the region should have been warned about this long in advance, so contingency plans could have been put in place.
Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Spain, South Africa, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and nationals of CARICOM member states with the exception of Haiti do not require a visa to visit the single domestic space of the ten Caribbean countries.
All other nationals travelling through the Caribbean between February 1 and May 15 need to apply for the Special CARICOM Visa, which will allow their names to be vetted against a range of alert lists and databases compiled by Interpol and the U.S. Homeland Security Department.
A number of countries, including Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxemburg, whose citizens have traditionally needed no visa, will now have to apply for one before travelling to the Caribbean.
For reasons unknown to them, they were thrown on the terror watch list along with India, Australia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh whose nationals also require the single visa.
The Cricket World Cup, the third largest global sporting event will take place over a 55-day period from March 5 to April 28 in Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. Although not hosting any of the games, Dominica has joined the single domestic space.
Some 16 teams from around the world including Australia, England, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies will take part in the international games, expected to draw hundreds of thousands of cricket lovers around the world.
Tobago is not the only island in the Caribbean affected by the single visa policy.
The Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association said several bookings were already being cancelled and projected that the full impact of the losses to the industry will be felt long after the tournament has ended and will run into several million US dollars.
JHTA president Horace Peterkin said some hotels have already had cancellations approaching US$200,000.
Jamaican Tourism Minister Aloun Assamba claimed earlier that the effects of the visa requirements will be insignificant and will cost a mere US$10,000.
Peterkin said the local tour representative companies which specialise in the non-traditional markets out of South America, Europe, Asia and the rest of the world also stand to lose a significant amount of their business during the CARICOM visa regime and even beyond.
Some of that business, which the sector has worked diligently to develop over the last 12 years, has been put on hold for the moment.
Travellers from places like Switzerland, who have never needed a visa to visit most places in the world for the last 100 years, seem to have decided to switch their vacations to destinations that do not require a visa, he said.
But Assamba insisted that the visa requirement would affect only five per cent of visitors to the Caribbean which works out to 10,000 people who would earn the region approximately US$10,000.
She also claimed that there was no evidence of cancellations in tourist bookings as a result of the CARICOM Special Visa and that her ministry was working very closely with tour operators, travel agents, travellers and the immigration department, to ensure that there was no fallout from the process.
In Antigua, the president of the Hotels and Tourist Association, Neil Forrester said the Special CARICOM Visa requirement has the potential to seriously hamper tourism in the region.
He described it as a "necessary ill" to make sure that the people coming in for cricket, do so in the safest way and to ensure security around the event.
However, he conceded that it was being handled in a very bad way.
"You can't bring this sort of thing in at the last minute without telling anyone. CARICOM, in its way, has not consulted with tourism, hasn't given due consideration to the total picture, so now we've got to pick up the pieces."
Josef Forstmayr, managing director, Round Hill Hotel & Villas, and the Austrian Honorary Consul to Jamaica, said it is unfair to burden Austrian citizens by suddenly imposing the visa regulation.
Describing it as the "worst PR nightmare the Caribbean has ever created for itself," the naturalised Jamaican hotelier added that if the Caribbean is really committed to this legacy of the visa regime and single market and economy, then they should provide excellent security and safety beyond May 15 with a modified visa mechanism.
But addressing angry and concerned European tour operators in Aruba three weeks ago, St Lucia's Tourism Minister, Allan Chastinet said based on an intelligence briefing from regional security officials, he was satisfied of the need to enact the unprecedented security measures for CWC 2007.
He also saw it as an ideal opportunity for multi-destination marketing, something that the Caribbean has been talking about for some time.
Barbados Deputy Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who is Chair of the CARICOM Sub Committee for Cricket World Cup (CWC) security assured the tour operators that measures will be implemented to make the process more convenient for their clients.
Guyana, one of the countries hosting some of the international cricket matches, is also seeking assurances that the common visa policy would not hinder its hosting of the Rio Summit later next month.
Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo headed a team to meet CARICOM Secretary General Dr. Edwin Carrington on their concerns.
The Guyanese leader reported that among a number of issues discussed "the key one was concerns over the common visa that will be issued by CARICOM to facilitate free movement or easy movement for the patrons who come for cricket."
Jagdeo said he was worried that the decision "could have unintended consequences for Guyana, given that we are hosting the Rio Group Meeting and we don't want that to conflict with the Rio Group Meeting."
He sought to find some common ground on which both could be undertaken with no security or other risks posed ahead of, and during the visit of the high level Rio Group delegates.