By Loshaun Dixon
Basseterre, St. Kitts – Disgruntled taxi drivers in St. Kitts and Nevis took protest action Tuesday in Basseterre, voicing their displeasure at dispatching arrangements at Port Zante when ships are present.
About two dozen taxi operators circled Basseterre, blowing their horns and displaying placards mounted on their vehicles as they called for a fair share in the dispatching system.
Taxi operator Sylvester “Socrates” Hodge told media that during the past month or so the tourism authority put in place a transportation committee comprising the presidents of the taxi associations and the taxi corps to come up with some new dispatching arrangements. He explained that the information was not shared with the taxi membership.
“It was not the tourism authority fault’s,” he said, “but the associations’ presidents who never shared the information with us.”
Hodge added that in early February the St. Kitts Tourism Authority told them of the new arrangements.
“In my mind, it was a done deal because we didn’t have any input in it when it was presented to us,” he said. “It was news [to us] and we thought it was a done deal.” The group decided to give the new arrangement try, but found it to be bias toward the safaris.
“They are in an advanced position in the prescribed areas where we normally dispatch from, ahead of us,” Hodge said. Prior to the arrangement, he said, there was a free-for-all for safari operators looking for their own work.
“When we met,” he said, “they explained the reason that they put them there is because they have not been dispatched. I said that was a lie because they were never in the queue to be dispatched to, so somebody created a problem that did not exist.”
Hodge claimed with the safari operators at the front of the queue, the safari operators monopolised island tours, leaving taxi operators only beach work.
“I protested with a letter first,” Hodge said. “Then we had a petition [that] we put to them and he said we will do a compromise.”
Hodge explained that the offered compromise planned each safari receive a maximum 16 passengers as opposed to 30.
“They are allowed to leave with 16 passengers at $25 a head, so that’s approximately $400 every time they move,” he said. “They are 33 safari operators, while we are [more than] 300.”
He added when the safaris leave with more than $400, the taxi operators are limited in the amount of work they can get
“For example, in our rotation of 300 taxi drivers, it takes about three weeks for you to get your turn in the rotation,” he said. “They go every two days, so for the safaris that went yesterday, tomorrow they will come and go again while we are still waiting.”
Hodge indicated that they offered a solution to the tourism authority: “In as much as they claimed they were not being dispatched to…we are saying for every 10 of us, put them in our line,” he said. “One fair dispatching system was thought to be a viable option, [but] that was six weeks ago and we are still waiting.”
He also disclosed that they were promised the current arrangement would not continue into the off season, but still, the problem has not been alleviated now that the off season has arrived.
“We called the CEO and advised her that we were taking protest action and this morning she said they are trying to address it,” Hodge said.
He added that taxi drivers have made an investment into their vehicles and are now limited in the amount of passengers they can take.
“We are charged with taking our tour around the island, going to all the destinations,” he said. “These guys are going from here down to Caribelle Batik, and most take you to the Marina at the foot of Brimestone Hill and point up and turn back.”
The taxi operator explained that every time they carry tours to Brimstone Hill, they are charged $10 U.S. to visit the fortress, which creates a revenue stream for the fortress. He further stated that vendors at Black Rocks have been complaining, saying they have not been getting any business because they have not been getting any tours.
He also indicated that they are being required to charged $20 US per person on the full island tours, while the Safari charge $25 person for a shorter tour.
He made clear that they had nothing against the safari owners, but just want a fair dispatching system.
“As a matter of fact, they are some safari owners who are against this arrangement,” he said. He then called on the tourism minister to deal with the matter as soon as possible.
“It is giving him a bad rap and it could get worse,” Hodge said.
Aston Davis, another disgruntled taxi operator, said the issue started a very long time ago and he claimed that the tourism officials are not listening to them.
“The minister of tourism and the executive body that is with him are just walking over taxi men,” he said. “That is how I see it.” He said that even when big ships and multiple ships are present, taxi drivers leave without getting a job. “Everyone has [more than] $100,000 invested in their vehicle,” he said. “And the other thing that gets me mad ss that they [the safaris] are allowed to go with capacity while [officials] limit us.”
Another taxi operator indicated he received his vehicle through the government’s fresh start programme and foresees problems, as he had only made $12 in the past two weeks.
In a statement following the protest action, the St. Kitts Tourism Authority indicated that in February, they and the Ministry of Tourism, in collaboration with taxi and tour operators, embarked on a new dispatching system to improve operations on Port Zante.
“This new system was not intended to be permanent, but a work in progress, to streamline the dispatching of visitors to taxi and tour operators, including those operating open air safaris,” the statement indicated.
They indicated that the some taxi operators have publicly raised concerns regarding the system and the concerns are being addressed with some already resolved.
“We are in constant dialogue with our stakeholders, which include taxi and tour operators, and our partners, the cruise line executives, on improving the way we do business on Port Zante,” the statement read. “The intention is to create a system that provides an equal opportunity for everyone to make money.”
The statement, however, dismissed claims that they give the safari operators an advantage over taxi operators and provided statistics to back up the claim.
“This year, from the 14th to the 28th February, 3,961 cruise passengers were dispatched to taxis, compared to only 243 cruise passengers, who were dispatched to open air safaris,” the statement read. “From the 1st to the 13th of March, 4,019 visitors were dispatched to taxis, while only 592 visitors were dispatched to open air safaris. Also, from the 14th to the 31st March, 5,542 visitors were dispatched to taxis, while 1,220 visitors were dispatched to open air safaris. In total, 13,522 cruise visitors were dispatched to 1,799 taxis, while on the other hand a total of 2,055 cruise visitors were dispatched 155 open air safaris. “
However, officials admitted that there were challenges in the system and they are working to alleviate them: “It is a work in progress, and for the system to progress we must listen to each other, and work together to improve on the way we do business.”