The Tobago House of Assembly (THA) has agreed to foot a $16,800 daily bill for the ANR Robinson International Airport in Crown Point to open as late as 1.30 am, with hopes that it will drive more local tourists to the island.
The move will come at the expense of Virgin Atlantic, however, as the THA plans to redirect funds from the subvention the airline gets to pay the Airports Authority $5.6 million annually for the extended opening hours.
This was just one of many measures announced by Chief Secretary Farley Augustine as he delivered an ambitious, near four-hour long $3.97 billion THA Budget in Scarborough yesterday.
Other key measures included the establishment of a Tobago Development Bank, $60 million in funding to assist businesses, the construction of over 1,000 houses in this term of office, a push for the removal of the Land Licensing Regime to allow more direct foreign investment and a move toward the construction of two hotels that can add 850 rooms to the island’s stock.
The THA will also open an “outpost” on Pembroke Street, Port-of-Spain, to assist Tobagonians to do business easier and also to push Parliament for the establishment of full autonomy through revised Tobago Autonomy Bills.
Augustine told the Assembly that in their bid to get the economy to recover, the THA was seeking to have the airport opened later, but said when he spoke to the Airports Authority, they indicated that it was too expensive.
The sum for the extended hours, he told reporters later, was US$600 per hour or roughly TT$16,800 per day.
He described the 12 flights that Caribbean Airlines provides daily as “paltry” and said that hotels remain at 50 per cent capacity.
“We propose to foot the bill from our airlift support services to keep the Tobago airport open until 1.30 am. Caribbean Airlines will now have no excuses. The movement of Caribbean Airlines between both islands is an essential service and it is the duty of the central government to fund this operation. I am using this platform to say to Caribbean Airlines, please return to full capacity,” Augustine said.
In his post-Budget news conference, Augustine explained that both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways (BA) fly to Tobago but that BA was doing much better on the route.
“Currently, we are paying tens of millions to Virgin and this comes out of our budget every year,” he said, explaining further that the annual $5.6 million it would take to open the airport later would come out of the funds that the THA pays to have Virgin Atlantic fly to the island.
Seeking 6.9% of national Budget
Augustine predicated the Budget on the upper limit of the Dispute Resolution Commission’s ruling on what Tobago should be allocated, an amount of 6.9 per cent of the national Budget.
He argued that in the Tobago Autonomy Bill, the Government was promising to give Tobago 6.8 per cent, which he said, shows that the Government could afford it.
“If they were so interested and love Tobago, it would be no problem to give us 6.9 per cent,” he said.
The Chief Secretary said recent data indicated that Tobago’s GDP (gross domestic product) fell 7 per cent from 2019 to 2020 and rose 4 per cent in 2021.
However, he said the overall data pointed to an underperforming economy in need of major growth.
Core inflation figures, he said, were around 3.5 per cent in March, which “signals the need to boost our defence against inflation and defend the population from the effects of cost of living rises.”
Total liabilities were $738.1 million in December 2021 and when contingent liabilities for the $215.8 million bond financing that is payable by 2027 were added, total liabilities amounted to a whopping 57 per cent of Tobago’s estimated GDP in 2021.
It is for this reason he announced an aggressive drive to attract more direct foreign investment, part of which will involve the THA calling on the central government to get rid of the Land Licensing regime, through which proposals for land ownership must be approved.
“It is inimical to Tobago’s autonomy efforts to have a minister sitting in an office in Port-of-Spain without a clue of Tobago’s needs, deciding who can invest and where they can invest,” Augustine said.
According to Augustine, the THA will first develop a comprehensive spacial plan to protect the environment and sensitive areas, before it designates places for direct foreign investment.
He told reporters later that the fear that Germans were buying up all the land in Tobago was proven untrue and that most of the land buyers were from Trinidad.
He is also calling for the re-establishment of Tobago desks at foreign missions and said the THA will go on a drive for members of the Tobago diaspora to invest in the island.
A diaspora homecoming event will be organised to coincide with the 2023 Heritage Festival.
Tobago Development Bank
Augustine told the Assembly that discussions were taking place toward the establishment of a Tobago Development Bank, including with the Central Bank, which is willing to offer technical support.
He said it will mobilise investment capital to fund economic expansion and programmes of the Assembly, fund financial indigenous entities, provide land banking services for Tobagonians, and subsume all Tobago business financing and development programmes within its operations.
A Trade Unit will also be established within the Division of Trade in the Assembly to help businesses with the expansion of the trade and market access, thereby boosting their business opportunities.
To boost tourism, he said preliminary discussions were taking place with two major investors that could collectively result in an investment of $1.5 billion in the Tobago economy if it materialises, adding 850 rooms in the next three years.
The two investments, he noted, would provide 1,050 jobs during construction and more than 400 jobs when they are operationalised.
Two highly-mechanised mega-farms of no less than 100 acres each will be established and 1,050 housing units will be built in the first term at a rate of 200 units a year, starting in the second quarter of fiscal 2023.
Another proposal is for all new public housing developments and existing THA facilities to be supplemented, in part, by renewable solar energy facilities and the next fleet of THA vehicles will be electric. Publicly-owned carparks will all have charges for electric vehicles.
The Budget was themed “Towards a smarter, greener more autonomous Tobago,” with recurrent expenditure at $3.07 billion, the development programme at $900 million, URP at $59.5 million and CEPEP at $53.1 million.
The debate will resume next Tuesday.