The Tobago House of Assembly (THA) last week held preliminary talks with Gordon 'Butch' Stewart–founder and chairman of Sandals Resorts–about the proposed construction of a 750-room hotel on the island.
Confirmation came of progress towards the project from secretary of Tourism and Transportation in the THA Tracy Davidson-Celestine.
She said construction of the hotel was in keeping with the THA's tourism thrust.
"There are benefits to be derived with Sandals coming to Tobago. We expect more flights, recognition and tourists for Tobago. That in itself will bring more business for us."
Her comments came three days after Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced that Tobago was earmarked for a 750-room Sandals Resort, as Government seeks to make the island punch harder as a tourism destination. The aim is to get more revenue, foreign exchange and jobs.
This project, Rowley said, would take Tobago out of the economic gloom it was facing.
Davidson-Celestine said the assembly supported the move by the PM.
Sandals has opened its doors in Antigua, the Bahamas, Grenada, Barbados, Jamaica, St Lucia and Turks and Caicos.
Davidson-Celestine said THA's Chief Secretary Orville London has held several meetings with a view to understanding what will be required in terms of the level of investment that will be made.
"The discussions are continuing. It is still in its early stages."
She said Stewart was very interested in establishing his brand in Tobago.
"He (came) to Tobago on two or three occasions before. We had a one-on-one discussion with him as recently as last week. All of us are excited by the possibility of this project."
Davidson-Celestine said Stewart did not indicate how much he would invest, since talks were still at a preliminary stage.
"We believe the investment being made by Stewart is needed to help the island's tourism sector to grow and develop. We really welcome this partnership."
A project of this nature, Davidson-Celestine said, can take about 24 months from start to finish.
Questioned what would be the best location for the hotel, Davidson-Celestine said the west end of Tobago, which is within close proximity to the beaches and airport.
She expects a positive spinoff in the form of increased flights to Tobago, noting that since Sandals opened businesses in Barbados and Grenada, flights by American Airlines have increased.
These two Caribbean countries had one or two flights per week by American Airlines, Davidson-Celestine said, and "now they have daily flights."
International tourist arrivals have "skyrocketed," she claimed.
However, the ANR Robinson Airport is not large enough to accommodate two or three aircraft simultaneously on the ground, a shortcoming Davidson-Celestine acknowledges. It also lacks lounge facilities for higher-class travellers.
"If you are talking about bringing high-end guests to the island there is a requirement that you must have facilities for those who are travelling in business class and the rewards programme. If you look at all airports across the Caribbean and internationally, there is a hospitality area for those kinds of people who travel in those classes. So we need that."
She said the establishment of a ferry port from Trinidad to Tobago would also open up opportunities for the island.
One criticism that Sandals has faced over its all-inclusive model is that it keeps all business within its walls, and does not bring the rest of the island into the visitor experience. General manager of Kariwak Village, Allan Clovis, is worried that the Tobago Sandals would become an "enclave."
"That might be a model for other countries. But we as a people have not promoted that sort of thing," Clovis said.
And he wants to know whose money is being risked.
"How much money is Stewart putting towards this venture? They are not telling us the whole story. I am not taking away from the idea nor am I against the idea, but while Stewart is bringing his expertise and brand to Tobago, who is taking the investment risk?"
Despite the competition that Sandals would provide, general manager of Magdalena Grand Beach Resort, Christopher Forbes, described it as "a good initiative."
"Tobago will have a branded company on the island, as well as we would have more airlift coming directly here which is what we want. This would surely boost tourism. It's a step in the right direction," Forbes said.
Would Magdalena Grand lose business to Sandals? "Absolutely not," Forbes said.
Opposition warns against giveaway
Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal called on Government to say what is the current visitors' arrival figure for Tobago.
Moonilal said while it was good for Tobago to benefit from a new hotel "my information is that in the last ten years the arrival trendline does not support such an ambitious project."
Like Clovis, Moonilal also questioned how much money Sandals will be injecting into this partnership.
"I hope the Government will be transparent with the Hotel Management Agreement (HMA) and not give away the country, as was done under former prime minister Patrick Manning. It was the last PNM administration who had to renegotiate some elements of the Hyatt Regency Hotel HMA to ensure that profits owed to the people of T&T for over five years could be realised."