Tourism and the 2012 Budget

The Budget is not meant to be a strategic plan. At the same time, we expect the Finance Minister’s statement to provide a sense of direction. One thing Trinidad and Tobago are not short of; is bright ideas. Every newspaper, every blog, every online group is full of bright ideas. Where we do consistently fail is in implementation. Returning to the Budget, as has always been the case regardless of which party is in power, there was the usual rhetoric about diversifying the economy.

On page 14, the Minister’s speechwriter points to the “new areas of economic potential that remain undeveloped across the landmass of Trinidad and Tobago, places like the North Coast, South-Western Peninsula and North-East of Tobago as well as in the missing sectors that must be developed in areas like … sports and medical tourism.”  Now please permit me to comment on three (3) tourism-related issues.

Issue #1 is governance. In sport and medical tourism, the problem would be coordinating the Sports Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Tourism Ministry's work. There is also the Food Production Ministry and Local Government Ministry /authorities, under which some identified land/beaches would fall. This week Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, special advisor to the UN Secretary-General and one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) architects, moderated a round table discussion of about 70 Tourism Ministers from across the world.

The Ministerial Roundtable was on Fostering Growth and the MDGs' Achievement through Tourism, Culture, and Sport. Again this is recognition of the interministerial cooperation needed to make tourism seriously work.  In the UK, there is a Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which is led by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media, and Sport. Reporting to him are 3 other Ministers – the Tourism and Heritage Ministry, the Sports and Olympics Ministry, and the Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ministry. Remember the TIDCO structure we once had, which was dismantled in 2005?  Remember 2005 coincidentally marked the beginning of the collapse in our international arrivals? Therefore, no changes to our governance structure mean that there is the same chance of sports, medical, cultural tourism, etc. moving forward as there was last year or the year before.

Issue #2 would be around the thinking behind page 21 – “Tourism Action Plan.”  Historically, local tourism decision-makers have confused motion with progress. When questioned, tourism decision-makers in Barbados or Antigua speak about their activity within the context of a wider multi-year strategic plan. In Trinidad and Tobago, our decision-makers, when questioned, appear unsure of their wider destination strategy.  Some suggest that there is still is no agreed strategic plan which defines our value proposition and articulates a road map to achieving clearly defined strategic objectives.

As we see, year after year after year, there are suitably vague references to product development, marketing, public awareness, competitiveness, investment, etc.  Assuming that it is business as usual, we can expect more ribbon cutting and overseas trips without credible accounting for the returns or expected benefits.
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Issue #3 is around page 25, “Tobago Development.” At first, I got quite excited by the honest admission that Tobago’s international arrivals have been in free fall since 2005.  The Finance Minister’s embracing the 15-month stakeholder developed Tourism Action Plan was also quite encouraging.  The $100 million Tourism Development Fund, which is apparently to guarantee product/hotel development, is a good start. Still, again, this only makes sense in the context of the wider strategic plan. Tobago has different challenges from Trinidad. Aside from the usual product (hotels, sites, and attractions) and marketing issues, severe airlift issues (airlines pulling out make it hard for anyone to get there even if they wanted to) and political tensions in their relationship with Central Government.  Approaching these issues in an uncoordinated fashion is exactly what got us in the mess we presently find ourselves.

This is, of course, an assessment based on a very high-level speech by the Finance Minister. The devil is always in the details. These details are to be crafted by the various government entities. I conclude on the same point with which I have begun. We have never been short on great ideas – we consistently fail when it comes to delivery. Let us please not waste this opportunity. I am begging you.

My name is Derren Joseph, and I love my country, and I love my region. Despite our challenges, I still have the audacity of hope in the future of our beloved lands.

Feel free to email me at derren43@yahoo.com

You can reach me as well at derren@advancedamericantax.com.

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