Addressing Tobago’s Tourism Challenges

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

In the past, I have written that despite our tourism ministers’ best intentions and many TDC Directors, destination Trinidad and Tobago have certain challenges that put it at a disadvantage to our neighbors.  Please permit me to point out what I consider the 3 main ones.  Firstly, unlike many of our neighbors, 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 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 of weeks ago, I received a document about Tobago’s tourism difficulties, allegedly drafted by two key Tobago stakeholders.  As one would expect, the document describes how dire things have become, explains how things got this bad, and proposes emerging from apparent collapse.  As 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 fewer upgrades.  Add to this a credit crunch which has seen banks reluctant to extend credit, and we see properties that increasingly no longer meet international standards.  The Tobago tourism document clarifies 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.
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The document then proposes certain measures that 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, labor leaders and community-based organizations before it became politicized). Consider our more successful Caribbean neighbors 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. 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 upon by Tobagonians on all political spectrum sides.  Until at least a Tobago tourism development strategy is agreed upon 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.

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Table of Contents: Addressing Tobago’s Tourism Challenges

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