Drones, vacations and Caribbean regulations

Some time ago, I wrote a column about flying drones in the Caribbean – the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) loved by hobbyists – but which also have important everyday commercial applications.

I did so not because I have a drone, but because I am fascinated by all technological developments and their effect on society; and because in a Caribbean context, UAVs present unusual challenges in relation to safety, security, and personal privacy, while also bringing multiple benefits to the tourism industry.

At the time, I observed that drones are another form of disruptive technology, and that governments and the tourism industry will have to find ways to determine how best to relate such issues to the individual freedom that taking a UAV on vacation implies for those who fly them.

Writing then, I quoted an online hobbyist publication, Dronelife.com, which suggested to its readers that travelling with a drone has become an ‘epic way to catalogue… summer exploits’, was now much cooler than taking selfies, and was the best way of capturing a visit to the beaches of the Caribbean.

The quite unintended consequence of this was that since the time of writing, I have come to be seen as someone who flies drones, and is an expert on Caribbean regulations governing their use and importation.

While this makes me smile, the extraordinary number of messages I receive on the subject, mainly from young people, but also from commercial enterprises, makes an important point. There is an absence of current practical information not just on bringing a drone into the region, but on other technological and social issues of relevance to travellers, especially millennials.

When it comes to drones, there is no regional consistency. Approaches range from a complete ban, to wildly different customs interpretations on temporary imports. There are safety and security regulations in some countries in relation to airports and restricted facilities; confusion about licensing for commercial use; uncertainty about who is responsible for answering questions; and a near total inability in-country to police any restrictions that may have been created.

Since last writing on the subject, there have been sporadic statements by governments on what is forbidden, usually related to safety and security, as well as anecdotal reports on hobbyist websites of problems with customs. However, there is still an almost complete lack of information on-line on a national or regional basis.

I normally share what I know, as I have, by default, become a follower of the issue. I try to point flyers who I hear from– they are without exception responsible, and want to operate within national regulations– to the little information that is available, suggesting they contact tourist boards. However, it transpires that most of these organisations are unable to respond with any certainty to the needs of visitors.

This is of some significance, as many of the emails I receive come from those who are in the process of deciding whether to vacation in the Caribbean, and where. It begs the question as to what generic sites such as caribbeantravel.com or others developed by the hospitality industry are for, if a visitor cannot either be advised or directed to where they can obtain the detail they need to be able to travel with certainty.

If the region is interested in attracting tomorrow’s generation, their repeat business, and eventually their families, more attention needs to be paid to providing practical information about issues that have become significant to travellers from the region’s source markets. These include practical matters such as flying drones, high speed broadband, and public connectivity outside of hotels, to social issues relating to the tolerance of various forms of sexuality, or what is permissible to wear on the beach.

As with much else in a fragmented region, there may be no easy answers, not least because the issues in part are matters for the industry to consider.

Although issues surrounding tourism and flying drones may seem marginal, their technological advance and new commercial applications will soon require every nation in the region to respond. While any country can choose to make a tourism virtue out of retaining the past– a quite legitimate aspiration, but hard to deliver as a national product– having a modern, tourism-based economy makes the social and technological change taking place in source markets inescapable.