OECS officials lament low inter-island trade
ST JOHN'S, Antigua, Thursday February 9, 2012 – Trade between the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) states themselves is practically non-existent, with most sub-regional exports going to markets outside of the grouping.
This was the stark situation painted by Virginia Paul, head of the OECS Trade Policy Desk based in Castries, St Lucia, as she spoke this on the Colin Sampson Show radio programme.
Paul noted that the OECS imports from Trinidad & Tobago are significant, exceeding a quarter of a billion United States dollars annually. Petroleum products account for some 45 percent of Trinidad & Tobago’s exports to the sub-region.
Faced with a sub-regional economy that is perhaps excessively dependent on tourism for its export revenue and employment creation, officials of the OECS reportedly are focussing on economic diversification as an essential aspect of future economic health.
The trade policy expert reported that the tourism dollar accounts for 83 percent of OECS exports, and is linked to 70 percent of employment in the sub-region. Some territories are more dependent than others on tourism, whose contribution to sub-regional gross domestic product (GDP) ranges from 24 percent in (for example) Montserrat to 75 percent in Antigua & Barbuda.
All OECS states show a negative balance of trade in manufactured products. Encouragingly though, the sub-region enjoys a surplus of trade in services. This indicates that service-oriented activities may hold the key to much-needed diversification of the OECS economies.
Accordingly, OECS governments regard diversification into services as essential for eventually weaning the sub-region away from our present dependence on the tourism dollar for economic survival. Paul privately estimates that a better economic structure for the OECS territories would see tourism representing 50 percent or less of GDP, employment creation, and export earnings.
Following from this analysis, OECS governments are strongly urging programmes that develop economic activity in such areas as educational services - for example, training nurses to meet international demand.
The health and wellness industry (some may refer to this as “health tourism”) holds considerable promise, as well-heeled patients from around the world may seek top-of-the-line medical care in the salubrious environment of the modern Caribbean.
The Caribbean can also hope to compete successfully in providing professional business services such as accounting, design, and information technology. In these sectors, location is not a critical issue and poses no obstacle to high level performance.
Not to be forgotten, of course, are the creative arts and culture. The Caribbean region already has a reputation for its unique and exotic offerings in the areas of music, festivals, art, and crafts. The developing motion picture industry holds significant promise for indigenous film features, as well as the use of the region for shooting international productions.
The head of the OECS Trade Policy Desk emphasized that the thrust toward economic diversification away from tourism is a matter of immediate policy, and not some vague future endeavour. The time for action is now, and sub-regional economic players (that is, all of us) are well advised to pay urgent attention to the need to transform our sub-regional economy from its current state of virtual monoculture.