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The Business of Tourism: Taxis, the visitor and a challenge

David Jessop

By David Jessop

Taking a taxi at any airport is always an interesting experience. This is because it frequently provides the first true impression of a country, its culture, how well it is organised and the way people are. More often than not, it also demonstrates the cartel-like arrangements that taxi associations have established with the airport or cruise terminal authorities, and how strong or weak government bodies are when it comes to managing quality, regulation and licensing.

Over the years I have become almost inured to the experience, reasoning that as long as I have a rough idea of the likely fare to where I am going in the country that I am in, the experience is one to be observed, and either enjoyed or disliked.

Among my most memorable taxi journeys have been one in Barbados many years ago, well before the authorities there tightened up on who could drive visitors, when a rather vague old man who could scarcely see was driving a Rover car probably from the 1950s with the consequence that we veered in the half light of morning from side to side of what thankfully was a narrow coastal road. Then there was a late night taxi driver in Trinidad who jumped a queue of waiting colleagues, grabbed my bags and sped off with me in the back, only to hide down a side road as his angry colleagues chased us part of the way into Port of Spain. There was also the driver at JFK in New York who couldn’t find the airport Hilton and had to ask directions, and a wonderful driver who on a Sunday brought his girlfriend, music and soft drinks for what was a fun if very long ride from Kingston to Montego Bay in his battered minibus.

I note all of this as, while increasing numbers of visitors now have arrangements for their transfer to and from an airport included in their travel arrangements, the taxi experience can be an important part of any country’s brand. While I do not want the personalised running commentary that has started to appear in some Caribbean nations, it is good to be able to get into a well presented vehicle, with air conditioning that works with a responsible driver.

Increasingly across the Caribbean for this reason, taxi driver training is being coordinated by the tourist boards, cruise companies, and organisations including the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, and often followed by the trainee programmes.

This is all good news, but for those who have looked at what is happening in the wider world of North America, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, something far more revolutionary is happening in the taxi world.

Despite objections from existing taxi associations in these regions, apps for mobile phones are becoming commonplace. These enable you to, as it were, hail a taxi electronically from almost anywhere, reduce the cost of your ride, and allow sharing with strangers who may be nearby.

The consequence is that companies like Uber, Hailo and Lyft have been vying with mixed success in many countries to take traditional models of business away from the established taxi services.

If you thought that such an approach has no place in the Caribbean you may at present be right given the highly politicised and restrictive nature of taxi cooperatives.

However, the thin end of a very large wedge may now be appearing, albeit in a different type of Caribbean environment, in Puerto Rico. There Uber appears likely to start a service soon. It is looking at possibilities on Colombia’s Caribbean coast soon and is making clear that it is prepared to fight the necessary legal battles to overcome legal objections.

This is a trend that may over time be unstoppable. It will require greater consideration, not least in relation to what government may or may not have committed themselves to in trade agreements in relation to opening their services market to others.