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Tourism Transport Initiative Aims to Regulate Taxi and Rental Services Sector

By Reginald Andrew
Tourism Minister, Dr. Ernest Hilaire
Tourism Minister, Dr. Ernest Hilaire

Measures are being put in place to address the very ‘critical role’ that the tourism transportation sector plays in providing services for the many visitors to the destination.

Recently, personnel from the Ministry of Tourism and other stakeholders in the hospitality industry provided an update on the Tourism Transportation Transition Initiative regarding the absorption of existing H-plate operators into the formal TX system and the lifting of the moratorium on the issuance of TX-plates.

Back then , it was felt then that the taxi sector, which is referred to as the ‘Tourism Transportation Service Providers’ had become a bit “uncomfortable” and was being looked at , as a “dysfunctional sector”. Also, the sector was plagued with several persons plying their trade in an informal manner, with little clarity as to the requisite roles and functions of the ‘taxi drivers’.

Tourism Minister Dr. Ernest Hilaire noted that it took approximately 15 years to access the information required to undertake this critical process. In the midst of lots of consultations, disagreements and distractions, he said, and after extensive consultation with different stakeholders, such as the transport board, taxi associations, taxi drivers and independent taxi drivers, the police and several other entities, it resulted in “a revision of the provision that once existed for the management and maintenance of the tourism transportation sector”.

“Since the moratorium was placed a lot has changed and you now have online bookings. You basically have online commerce as an essential feature,” Dr. Hilaire told reporters, at a recent press briefing.

He said the issue now entails dealing with taxi drivers on the stands, drivers that peg at the respective points of entry “but you now have people who are booking online, and expecting pickups at the airports.”

Hilaire noted that such an arrangement creates problems between the registered taxi operators/companies and persons looking to cash in off the online bookings.

The minister said “the whole landscape has changed” and with the introduction of Huber, there is an online taxi service where people can book a taxi service online.

He said that while Saint Lucia does not provide a fully functional Huber service here, there are people that make arrangements for taxis to pick them up at various points.

“A lot has changed and we have been able to respond to these changes and to come up with an approach, we believe would rationalize the taxi service,” added Hilaire. “We cannot continue as is …we have done a lot of work and I must commend the Ministry of Tourism staff that has worked very hard on this initiative and to reach where we are today.”

He also acknowledged support from the transport board, and the Royal St Lucia Police Force [RSLPF], as they are essentially responsible for enforcing “what it is that we have agreed upon, so they will end up being the most critical partners.”

Deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Ann- Marguerite Adams expounded on the strategies to be implemented and ‘legislative enforcement.’

Adams said the ministry undertook this initiative “guided by a cabinet policy”, with a three-pronged approach.

She explained, “There is a prohibition on the use of H Plates rendering taxi service … so anyone who is going to be offering taxi services must have the designated plate and that plate is a TX Plate.”

The ministry official added, “The vehicle must be registered with a TX Plate and the individual who is operating that vehicle must have the requisite TX plate.

“And secondly, the transition programme will not only look at the operations of our taxis, but also the car rental services.

As part of this transition, the ministry also plans to revisit the operations of the car rental sector “so, they will also have the designated plate, which I supposed to be the R and that is within the provisions of the existing legislation.”

Adams said that since the moratorium has been lifted, people get the opportunity to register for a requisite plate .

Consequently, the transport board and other related agencies will now review applications for taxi service to operate in the sector. She added: “Whereas in the past…new entrants would not be considered, now that the moratorium has been lifted it would allow the ministries to consider application for permits.”

Adams said as the ministry adopts this new strategy, it would cater for new persons coming into the sector. However, she stressed, the process would be determined by a “demand study” that will determine the capacity and issues of growth, and how “moving forward, the issuance of permits will be done more empirically to inform decision making on the issuance of permits.”

The transition period targets persons that are holders of H Plates and provide taxi services, as well as, individuals providing car rental services. Whereas the Ministry of Tourism will monitor persons providing services within the taxi sector, the Ministry of Transport will focus on the transitioning with the H and R plates.

The ministry official explained that the first phase, to be conducted from November 1 to March 30, 2023 will specifically deal with the transition of existing operators that are H plate holders and also TX operators who also have H plates, as well.

The second phase is for new entrants, and will involve a period from May to September, 2023 “and it will be determined by the demand study”.

Hilaire asserted that “the taxi drivers can really enhance the quality of the product and the reputation of Saint Lucia as a destination”, and so, the demand study will be really critical in terms of deciding how many persons are allowed to enter the sector.

In addition to the demand study, said the minister, focus must also be placed on the quality of service provided. “And therefore, under the new Tourism Development Act to be presented to the house very soon we will require all sectors in the tourism sector to be certified. And to be certified, there are agreed upon standards that these service providers must attain …similarly with the taxi driver.

Including maintaining a pleasant upkeep of vehicles and training for taxi drivers, Hilaire said, there will also be several components “to make sure that we have not just the capacity in numbers, but we also have the quality to ensure that the product is one which is of a certain standard.”

With regards to soliciting and other illegal activity involving the visitors, Adams declared, the major issue to be addressed during this transition is the area of enforcement. She admitted that the ministry is aware of lots of soliciting by unauthorized drivers and will introduce a ‘Decal system’ to address the matter.

She explained that the Decal system “is intended to assist the police in more effectively enforcing the (regulatory) activities within the sector so that these persons who are offering services would be differentiated from your existing drivers.”

What is the role of the police in this transition of providing effective transport services to the visitor?

Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Charlotte Thomas stated that basically, the role of the police is enforcement.

“The first act of enforcement is education,” declared ASP Thomas. “I implore persons to read the act …there are taxi and public omni-bus related offences and these offences as it speaks to the use of the permit, and operating a taxi without a taxi permit.”

Law enforcement officers have also been mandated  to clamp down on the illegal trade involving ‘pirates’, those persons involved in unauthorized tours with the visitors , said the high ranking officer.

A Traffic Enforcement Team has been established within the RSLPF’s traffic department to better coordinate the movements on the ground. ASP Thomas explained:  “We have them on cruise ship days where they will be monitoring at the different tourist sites. They will be monitoring not only traffic offenses, but the safety of tourists.”

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