CHARLES KONG SOO
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Tourism and the 2012 budget
The budget is not meant to be a strategic plan. At the same time, we expect the Finance Minister’s statement to provide at least a sense of direction. One thing T&T is not short of; is bright ideas. Every newspaper, every blog, every online group is full of bright ideas. Where we do consistently fail is in implementation. Returning to the budget, as has always been the case regardless of which party is in power, there was the usual rhetoric about the need to diversify the economy. On Page 14, the Minister’s speech writer points to the “new areas of economic potential that remain undeveloped across the landmass of T&T, places like the North Coast, South-Western Peninsula and North-East of Tobago as well as in the missing sectors that must be developed in areas like…sports and medical tourism.”
Now please permit me to comment on three tourism-related issues. Issue No1 is governance. In the case of sport and medical tourism, the problem would be coordinating the work of the Sports Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Tourism Ministry. There is also the Food Production Ministry and Local Government Ministry/authorities, under which some identified land/beaches, would fall. This week, Prof Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, special adviser to the UN secretary general and one of the architects of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), moderated a round table discussion of about 70 tourism ministers from across the world. The ministerial roundtable was on Fostering Growth and the Achievement of the MDGs through Tourism, Culture and Sport.
Again, this is recognition of the interministerial cooperation needed to make tourism seriously work. In the UK, there is a Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) which is led by the secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. Reporting into him are three other ministers—the Tourism and Heritage Ministry, the Sports and Olympics Ministry and the Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ministry. Remember the Tidco structure we once had, which was dismantled in 2005? Remember 2005 coincidentally marked the beginning of the collapse in our international arrivals? No changes to our governance structure therefore means that there is the same chance of sports, medical, cultural tourism etc moving forward as there was last year or the year before that.
Issue No2 would be around the thinking behind Page 21—“Tourism Action Plan.” Historically, local tourism decision makers have confused motion with progress. When questioned, tourism decision makers in Barbados or Antigua speak about their activity within the context of a wider multi-year strategic plan. In T&T, our decision makers, when questioned, appear unsure of their wider destination strategy. Some suggest that there is still is no agreed strategic plan which defines our value proposition and articulates a road map to achieving clearly defined strategic objectives. As we see, year after year after year, there are suitably vague references to product development, marketing and public awareness, competitiveness, investment and so on.
So assuming that it is business as usual, we can expect more ribbon cutting and overseas trips without any credible accounting for the returns or expected benefits. Issue No3 is around Page 25, “Tobago Development.” At first I got quite excited by the honest admission that Tobago’s international arrivals have been in free fall since 2005. The Finance Minister’s embracing the 15-month stakeholder developed Tourism Action Plan was also quite encouraging. The $100 million Tourism Development Fund which is apparently to take the form of a guarantee on product/hotel development is a good start but again this only makes sense in the context of wider strategic plan.
Tobago has different challenges from Trinidad. Aside from the usual product (hotels, sites and attractions) and marketing issues, there are severe airlift issues (airlines pulling out makes it hard for anyone to get there even if they wanted to) and political tensions in their relationship with Central Government. Approaching these issues in an uncoordinated fashion is exactly what got us in the mess in which we presently find ourselves. This is of course an assessment based on a very high-level speech by the Finance Minister. The devil is always in the details. These details are to be crafted by the various government entities. I conclude on the same point with which I begun. We have never been short on great ideas, we just consistently fail when it comes to delivery. Let us please not waste this opportunity. I am begging you.
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