Last weekend, there was a 20 member group of Turkish tourists here in Trinidad. Among this group was Professor Dr Orhan Kural from Istanbul Technical University. He is not just a travel writer but I would describe the good Professor as a ‘professional tourist’. Professor Kural has visited over 100 countries! Turkey is also a heavyweight destination that does over 25 million tourists a year and at number 7, is among the world’s top 10 destinations. So last Saturday at Chaconia Hotel we had a stimulating exchange about the tourism industry.
Professor Kural’s opinion is that we should avoid mainstream tourism and instead position Trinidad and Tobago as something else. Having visited other tropical islands, including others in our region, he believes that we have something special to offer and should avoid focusing on sand, sea and sun. He advocated an Integrated Land Use Strategy that recognizes the carrying capacity of areas allocated to tourism activity. Otherwise we may face the environmental challenges that Turkey, and other destinations are battling with today.
The following day, a very experienced Trinidadian hotelier told me that he agreed that there are “plenty of small hotel enthusiasts around” and that as a past Chairman of the Caribbean Hotel Association’s Small Hotels Advisory Council – he was one of them. He went on to say however, that the “plain, simple, truth is that a very significant proportion of them are poorly run by well meaning amateurs, and are extremely difficult to market”. In other words, we should be careful in selecting a niche market strategy that depends on small properties, run to international standards. Do not overlook mainstream markets that depend on medium to large sized properties with strong brands with service to international standards.
The mainstream vs niche dilemma is just part of the debate that is raging. Everyone interested in tourism seems to agree that destination Trinidad and Tobago has a marketing problem. It would appear however that the problem is twofold. Firstly, our marketing budget is not on par with competing destinations. Jamaica Tourist Board budgeted about J$1.5 billion or US$18 million but with the Dudus -related unrest, added an extra US$10 million which makes – US$28 million for marketing in 2010. Barbados is usually around US$50 million but our marketing is about US$10 million which is closer to tiny Dominica’s budget of US$4.5 million. Secondly, we have a complex product proposition with separate and often inconsistent messages about Trinidad vs. Tobago – together with many niches all competing for mind share. As such, increasing spend, without clarifying and simplifying our value proposition, may not be the best way forward.
Suffering the most in the midst of this is Tobago. A few months ago, Carol-Ann Birchwood-James, President of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association described occupancy levels of about 25% as “dismal”. I am told that things have only deteriorated with many in the industry thinking of leaving the industry altogether. As we look towards 2011 most agree that a sharp turnaround is unlikely especially in the UK market given increased airline ticket taxes, a Royal wedding, public sector budget cuts and so on. This makes the task difficult but not impossible if, as I have continuously advocated, the industry comes together to agree a workable strategy.
It is noteworthy that in the face of the global economic challenges, Jamaica, despite its domestic challenges, is the only English speaking Caribbean destination to continue to report growth in both visitor arrivals and more importantly, earnings. Looking at Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett’s Budget Speech does provide some insight as to why. Space does not allow a detailed analysis but 3 points are worth mentioning.
Firstly, the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) leverages technology in ways we could learn from. In this regard, I have high hopes for the long overdue work being done by Nirad Tewarie and the team at the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition of Services Industries (TTCSI) to create a Carnival Hub that promises to revolutionise our nation’s internet presence. The tourism sector needs to closely align itself with this effort. Secondly, market diversification is obvious yet elusive for us but we should note what the Jamaicans have done with the Spanish and now Chinese markets in particular. It was well planned and effectively executed. Thirdly, in Tobago in particular, our airlift strategy suffers from a lack of the medium to higher end room stock that customers demand. That needs to be changed quickly. US Tax Singapore
Bottom line, we cannot continue doing the same things and expect a different result. My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land. Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in the future of our beloved country.