The economic viability of Tobago’s tourism product cannot be accomplished by empty promises but on sound implementation of strategies. This is especially so in a postCOVID world said tour operator and tourism expert Ted Greig.
Greig, owner of Ted’s Sunshine Tours told the Business Guardian that Tobago’s tourism offering “could have been and should have been” more advanced than it is at present.
Hence, he said the island is still not on par with its regional partners, noting there’s still much to be improved on all fronts in Tobago.
And with the upcoming THA election he said whichever party takes over there must be more collaboration with stakeholders to move the industry forward.
“There must be a closer relationship with the private sector as it plays an integral role in tourism development in product and destination. Those who are operating in sites and attractions need to be included because they are the ones on the ground and they are the ones who perhaps know even more than those in office,” Greig added.
Further, he said the time has “far gone” where people can “sit in an office and think they know what is best” for Tobago without having that connectivity with other players.
Additionally, while Greig welcomed the proposed Marriott Hotel initiative he hopes it does not turn into a “Sandals issue.”
“We need to ensure this project comes to fruition and it does not become another spin on things as we have seen in the past,” Greig added.
Local company, Superior Hotels Limited, had signed on to construct a $500 million 200-room Marriott-branded hotel in Rocky Point, Tobago and it is expected to help put the island’s struggling tourism sector on a path to growth.
Construction is scheduled to begin in 2023 on approximately 28 acres of land on the western side of Grafton Road and south of Pleasant Prospect.
In 2019 Sandals Resorts International however, cited “constant and ongoing negative publicity” and withdrew its participation in the establishment of a multi-million dollar resort on the island of Tobago.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert, had said the construction of the 750-room Sandals and Beaches Resort represented a “major turning point for the economy of Tobago.”
At the recently concluded Trinidad and Tobago Virtual Investment Forum , Louis Lewis, CEO of the Tobago Tourism Authority said Tobago was in the market for property investments of four-star and above with room capacity of 250 and above.
However, he emphasized that investments needed to have the “right mix” and be able to produce a high-yield, low environmental impact and exist with the natural environment.
But Greig said other factors which must also be examined to uplift Tobago’s tourism including customer service which has been a “big challenge” over the years.
But he said the Department of Tourism has paid some attention to this by providing training from international companies.
More product development
Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association president Hassel Thom who spoke in his private capacity, echoed similar sentiments noting that for Tobago to be on par with other destinations much more than obvious infrastructural components like the airport project and additional airlift are needed.
According to Thom Tobago must step-up its marketing strategy as this plays a large role in the island’s visibility.
However, he said Tobago has definitely shown it can utilize the amount allocated, adding that “the quantum of allocation is more likely what needs to be looked at.”
Roomstock, he noted, has improved but this has been a lingering issue for quite some time, as just prior to COVID the demand for the island would have stopped its consistent decline.
“Funding arrangements will be required however, that in itself may present challenges for some of the properties, as it also presents additional debt,” Thom added.
And for increased visitor arrivals he suggested the island focus on how it blends its cultural elements into its tourism product.
“Culture is already entwined with tourism and instead of bringing the culture to the hotels, take a different approach of encouraging visitors to the respective villages where the experience can be a bit more immersive and so doing, a greater experience would be had by potential visitors,” Greig advised.
Further, Greig said the THA should encourage a proper governance arrangement, where all properties are registered businesses and pay taxes.
“THA roles should only be the enabler so that the destination becomes more visible,” Greig added.
But for the holistic honing of Tobago’s tourism, Greig said what is required is a supportive banking sector for further debt refinancing, noting that for this to be implemented will require influence from the Central Bank and by extension the Government.
“How can bond financing be encouraged if not with the traditional banks? We may also need to become a bit more creative with financing but with that comes additional risk, such as looking at equity funding through the engagement of people wanting to invest. “The risk in this is that capital structure of ownership will change, but it will present opportunities for the existing plants,” Greig said.
He added that for any of these funding arrangements to be considered then tourism has be deemed a special economic sector that will require a mature approach from all stakeholders involved.
Tobago’s tourism still
Meanwhile, Chris James, president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association said tourism generally, remains very resilient-the recovery post 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse enabled tourism to came back bigger and stronger.
But he said T&T has never really maximised its true tourism potential.
“You only have to look at the destinations in the region to see how tourism has grown, the jobs it has created and the ongoing investment each island has achieved,” he added.
And in the case of Tobago James said the island has never returned to the mid-2000’s when international arrivals reached over 87,000 compared to the 19,000 achieved in 2019.
He noted that airlift has continued to decline and non-stop flights are no longer, adding that the land licence process has put an end to international investment and marketing is not consistent or sustained.
“As the world starts to return to some normality travel and tourism is set to boom again. Already in the region some islands have more bookings going forward as of now compared to the same time in 2019. This is not the case in Tobago. We have BA returning to Tobago on January 10, but as of now no other confirmed international flights too Tobago.
“The majority of hotels will be open from December 1, but occupancy will remain low whilst beaches remain closed and until the air-bridge service increases flights,” James said.
Further, he said while Tobago does have the ability to connect through the airbridge with flights into Trinidad this can be problematic as connections are missed due to delays.
“And we really need a transfer desk to speed Tobago’s bound passengers through, making sure they make the connection and arrive in Tobago as planned,” he added.
However, according to James, Tobago has a lot to offer.
He explained the island is very much in line with what tourists want now; eco green and a natural environment.
Saying that investment is needed both local and foreign to expand and improve the product offerings and choice James added, “It is clear tourism in Tobago could be a major contributor to the national coffers.”
Further, James said T&T has more to gain than others, because of the manufacturing industry in Trinidad hence Tobago can buy most of its tourism products from Trinidad resulting in more of the tourism dollar retained in the country.