FEATURE: Special cricket visa irks tourism industry

by Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, January 29, 2007 –
It’s billed as the third biggest sporting event in the world after the football World Cup and the Olympics.

But as the Caribbean gets ready to open its doors to the International Cricket Council (ICC) Cricket World Cup from Mar. 5 to Apr. 28, not all stakeholders are overly enthusiastic about the event.

Tourism officials in some of the nine participating Caribbean states say visa requirements for persons visiting the region during the 58-day event could have the unintentional effect of eroding the industry.

Caribbean governments have designated the nine states as a “Single Domestic Space” allowing visitors, once they have cleared immigration and customs at their first port of entry, to freely travel to and within all of the other nine countries as if they were a single nation.

But in Jamaica, where a record three million stay-over visitors came to the island last year, the government is under pressure from hoteliers and opposition politicians to withdraw from the Caribbean Community (Caricom) agreement requiring visitors to acquire the 100-dollar special visa in place during the event.

“We know that security is a main concern to the ICC and our governments, but protecting a few months of cricket versus losing years of sweat equity, reputation, and confidence of these markets along with the immediate income of the stakeholders is a very hard pill to swallow,” Horace Peterkin, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), said in a letter to Tourism Minister Aloun Assamba.

Peterkin warned of “massive and immediate cancellation of all forward bookings” and said that Jamaica should put its national interest first.

“This matter is a grave one which needs to be explained to Jamaica… If Caricom is not able to cancel the ruling… then Jamaica should break away from the grouping in the interest of protecting its long-term interest,” he said.

Peterkin said some hotels have already had cancellations approaching 200,000 dollars and that local tour companies specialising 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”.

Overall, the JTHA said a conservative estimate puts the loss to the industry at 10 million dollars during the period of the games.

The opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), which is also eyeing a general election later this year, agreed, saying “this matter which all the Caribbean countries have agreed to as part of the sunset legislation to facilitate World Cup Cricket was not thought through carefully and the implications for tourism was not carefully discussed and indeed appreciated.”

“It is a difficult take to say Jamaica should go alone, but if the Caricom heads are not responsive then Jamaica should go alone because our tourism industry is now at a very crucial stage,” said the JLP spokesman on tourism, Edmund Bartlett.

Tourism officials in Antigua and Barbuda, another Caribbean state heavily dependent on the sector, placed the blame for the controversy and confusion surrounding the visa firmly at the doorsteps of regional governments.

“We don’t really argue that this shouldn’t have been done, but this should have been done a year ago and not two weeks before, so we’re fighting to put out fires in all the different markets,” said the president of the Antigua Hotels and Tourist Association, Neil Forrester.

“It is 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. Unfortunately, it is being handled in a very bad way. You can’t bring this sort of thing in at the last minute without telling anyone,” he complained.

Even hoteliers in oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago have expressed fears of massive cancellations from Scandinavian countries and have called for a meeting with Tourism Minister Howard Chin Lee to discuss the situation.

President of the Tobago Hotel Association, Rene Seepersadsingh, said countries like Thailand were already offering better deals to Scandinavian operators and his organisation was concerned about revenue losses and cancellations.

Caribbean governments had agreed to the visa requirement as part of a series of security measures during their summit last year. It comes into effect on Feb. 1.

With the exception of Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Britain, France, Japan, South Africa, Netherlands Antilles and the United States and dependent territories, citizens of all other countries wishing to travel throughout the Caribbean during the stipulated period are required to have a visa.

The regional governments said that international visa issuing sites would be located in Toronto, New York, Miami, New Delhi, Sydney and London.

Barbados Deputy Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who chairs the regional sub-committee on security for the tournament, has defended the need for the visa as part of the strict security arrangements for the event.

“Unfortunately, the world in which we live today as all of us know is not the same one that existed 10 years ago,” she said.

“When the heads of government of the region for example agreed to host Cricket World Cup there was no 9/11, there was no war in Iraq, there was no war in Afghanistan, but the period of time that has followed since has significantly altered the nature of the threats that the region faces.”

“It is in this context that we sought to ensure that while we host what is in effect the third largest global games…we are in a position to minimise the risks which our citizens and our visitors will face,” Mottley said, noting that the majority of the countries involved in hosting the games “rely excessively on tourism as their main foreign exchange earner”.

Citizens of Haiti, although a member of Caricom, will require visas for travel throughout the region during the event.

“Part of the difficulty in some of these issues relates not only to security but human trafficking and migration issues and therefore we have to be sensitive to the concerns of nine different nations,” Mottley said.

“At the end of the day, you are not seeking to balance the interest of one country but you are seeking to balance the interest of nine different countries and therefore that has inevitably to be a framework that accommodates those interests.” (Copyright IPS)