The announcement by Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis that the Assembly will be spending an additional $10 million on the Manta Lodge Hotel to ready it for guests is of concern if it will not lead to taxpayers recovering the millions already spent on a property that has never welcomed a single guest.
Dennis, who recently took over the position as Chief Secretary, yesterday revealed that 24 additional high-end rooms would be added to Tobago’s room stock by the end of this year. He said the renovation and refurbishment costs should be approximately $10 million and there are some “promising options” to manage the hotel, which will not be operated by the THA.
The Manta Lodge is a dive resort at Speyside and was purchased on November 19, 2015, for $8 million. Another hotel, Sanctuary Resort, was acquired for $24 million. Both purchases were made under Tracy Davidson-Celestine, who was then Tourism Secretary.
According to Mr Dennis, refurbishment on the Sanctuary Resort will be done at a later date as there will be a significant cost and the THA is hoping to attract an investor for that facility.
To be sure, Mr Dennis is not responsible for the débâcle he met and under his leadership.
What is, however, worrying is Mr Dennis' own admission that the properties were bought without any feasibility study and an admission that the THA itself has no plan on operating the hotels.
The fact is the THA has no experience and no record of being a successful operator and we have heard explanations from the Assembly that it got the distressed properties for cents on the dollar. The challenge is that even if the purchase was a good deal, it is clear there was no plan on how it could turn a profit for taxpayers and no explanation on how these hotels were strategic to the Tobago tourism product.
With the international arrivals to Tobago having all but grounded to a halt even before COVID-19, it is difficult to see how this project will, in the short run, make a return for taxpayers.
While Mr Dennis was neither Tourism Secretary nor Chief Secretary at the time of the outlay of taxpayers' funds, his political leader and now Secretary of Health and Human Services cannot escape such scrutiny.
Thus-far, Davidson-Celestine has remained mum on the purchase of the hotels and what was the thinking being the multi-million dollar spend. If Davidson-Celestine wants to one-day lead Tobago, she must take ownership of these and other failed tourism projects when she headed the Tourism Division and explain to the people of Tobago how they ended up with two properties costing millions but which still currently only houses bats and roaches.
Perhaps Davidson-Celestin can learn from her young Chief Secretary, who appears to want to bring some closure to these matters and to do so by openly addressing the burning issue of accountability for public funds.