Addressing Tobago's Tourism Challenges


For over a decade, I have worked in the travel and tourism within the Caribbean region and here in the UK and there is one thing I have learnt.  I have learnt that it is a deceptively complex industry –which tends to be quite political.  A former Director of Tourism for a Caribbean destination once explained to me that the job is 95% political and only 5% technical.    

In the past I have written that despite the best intentions of our Tourism Ministers and many TDC Directors, destination Trinidad and Tobago has certain challenges that put it at a disadvantage to our neighbours.  Permit me to point out what I consider the 3 main ones.  Firstly, unlike many of our neighbours, T&T’s Tourism Ministry is largely impotent since it has no direct control over key tourism assets such as creative industries (look at St Lucia or the UK), airlift, beaches or state owned hotels.  Secondly, we have confusingly tried to promote 3 propositions – destination Tobago, destination Trinidad, and destination Trinidad & Tobago.  Thirdly and most importantly, we are content to push forward without a strategic development plan signed off by the main stakeholders. 

The press recently reported that the TDC board was being “reconstituted” (i.e. fired) – allegedly because they disagreed on a 6 figure payment to a Minister’s relative.  This is an unfortunate disruption given the challenges facing the industry.  What do I mean by challenges?   A couple weeks ago I received a document about Tobago's tourism difficulties, allegedly drafted by two key Tobago stakeholders.  The document, as one would expect describes how dire things have become, explains how things got this bad, and proposes ideas for emerging from apparent collapse.  As has been reported in the media, arrivals are down 60% from a peak in the middle of the last decade.  But what does that mean?  How bad is it really in Tobago?

In short, the private sector is being squeezed out of business.  This means that there is no financial basis upon which to invest in maintenance, far less upgrades.  Add to this a credit crunch which, has seen banks reluctant to extend credit, and we see properties which increasingly no longer meet international standards.  The Tobago tourism document makes it clear that with a shortage of high quality beds, players in the source markets will continue to turn away from Tobago and focus elsewhere.  The continued deterioration in airlift is indisputable evidence. USA Tax Singapore

The document then goes on to propose certain measures which it believes would lead to a turn-around in the industry.  These measures include, but are not limited to, addressing the land license issue, greater state funding for upgrading private sector properties, more focused marketing, addressing the crime issue and infrastructural improvements.  It is an interesting document but something is still missing.    

In my opinion what is missing is a more holistic approach to the issue of tourism development.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need a stakeholder driven, national development strategy, of which tourism development is a necessary component.  To quote Neal & Massy’s Gervase Warner who was commenting on the global economic challenges facing the nation – “We need therefore to find a mechanism to join forces to lead a new initiative, not unlike the original Vision 2020 (which was started as a Master Plan to sustain economic growth, by businessmen and led by businesses, NGO, academics, labour leaders and community based organisations before it became politicised). Consider our more successful Caribbean neighbours who benefit from a position on tourism borne out of debate among the main stakeholders.  Observe that in St Lucia and Jamaica, despite recent regime changes, it is unlikely that there will be a substantive change in their tourism strategy because the approach already enjoys cross party support.  We need to agree on a plan!

Returning to Tobago, we cannot ignore the challenges in the relationship between the THA and Central Government.  Unlike Trinidad however, tourism is Tobago’s priority and although the office of the Secretary of Tourism may not directly control all Tobago’s tourism assets, it should, in principle, find it easier to coordinate activity.  All that is missing is a single plan agreed by Tobagonians on all side of the political spectrum.  Until at least a Tobago tourism development strategy is agreed by all key stakeholders, decision makers will continue to confuse activity with progress while numbers continue to plummet.  

My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country and my region.  Despite its challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope that we will enjoy a brighter tomorrow.  This year, 2012, will be a powerful year.  Continue to email me your thoughts on derren43@yahoo.com

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