Windies insist it`s all systems go

Updated: Jan 23, 2007, 18:37 PM IST

Bridgetown, Jan 23: Despite worries over hotels, stadiums and visas, it`s beginning to look like the World Cup is coming to the Caribbean as the 50-day countdown to the opening ceremony begins.

Officials from the nine host nations are busily putting things in place for the game`s biggest showpiece which officially opens in Jamaica on March 11.

But one issue which threatens to derail the arrival of thousands of fans is the CARICOM special visa which will allow visitors to travel freely throughout the Caribbean for the duration of the World Cup.

The visa will come into effect from February 1 and last until May 15.

In a historic move, the nine host nations have agreed to be treated as a single domestic space.

Their primary intention is to guard against terrorism.

Nationals of the United States, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Britain, The Netherlands, South Africa, Japan, France, and all CARICOM nationals except Haiti, do not require a visa.

But citizens of non-exempted countries, such as cricket heavyweights India and Pakistan, are required to have a visa.

Barbados` Deputy Prime Minister Mia Mottley has been given responsibility for the Caribbean`s security arrangements for the World Cup and she has defended the controversial visa.

"The countries involved in cricket are countries that are involved in the global war against terror," she said

She noted that the United States, Britain, Australia, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka were the largest sources of foreign visitors for the World Cup, and they have all been at the centre of some form of terrorism in recent times.

Mottley insisted that hosting the third largest sport event in the world carried a heavy responsibility, and the Caribbean may be a convenient target for terrorists because of a perception that the security was less stringent.

"We want to send a message that we have invested substantial amounts in security and we have tried to provide a strong environment to protect our citizens and visitors because we recognise that to come back from a terrorist act will be a major hurdle and we simply have no room to manoeuvre as small states," she said.

Meanwhile, personnel from organising committees in St. Vincent and Guyana have been engaged in simulations of actual match day scenarios to reassure tournament heads that they are all ready.

Further simulations wil follow over the next week in Trinidad & Tobago, followed by Grenada, and St. Kitts & Nevis.

Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua & Barbuda and Jamaica will hold their trials next month.

As the countdown gathers pace, the nine host nations have been told they need to brace themselves for the thousands who will descend on the region.

"Of course, a lot of people are coming for the cricket, but a lot are also coming for the party of a lifetime which they expect with such an event taking place in the Caribbean," World Cup managing director Chris Dehring said.

"These memories will be indelible and we must ensure that we make them as unforgettable as possible, priceless even," declared Dehring, adding that the knock-on effect of a sensational World Cup would be a fillip to the Caribbean`s tourism industry for years to come.

Most of the infrastructure for the event is in place.

This includes new stadiums, where the matches will take place, enhanced airport operations, newly paved roads, and other facilities.

Depending on to whom you speak, Caribbean people are still taking hosting of the World Cup in stride.

It is also very evident in the pattern of ticket sales for which organisers have had to issue several reminders to locals.

Though they all know what is at stake, they have berated the heavy spending. Many feel that the vast sums spent on the World Cup could have been invested in improving roadways, enhancing hospitals, constructing homes for the underprivileged, providing better public transportation, and upgrading other basic social services.

Hartley Henry, a regional political strategist, aptly summed up the general feeling in his column in the Nation newspaper in Barbados.

He wrote: "Somehow one gets the impression that had all this sprucing up been inspired by a genuine desire to make life better for Barbadians first and foremost, less pressure would be on authorities to now play the catch-up game, for the sole benefit of visitors, many of whom will probably not be bowled over by what they see and whose lasting memories of the World Cup will still be what happened on the pitch."