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Tourism can touch people

By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, November 25 2012

click on pic to zoom in
SWEET SOUNDING SITAR: Sitarist Mungal Patasar performs during the Voice of a People concert at Queen's Hall, St Ann's, on Friday night. Apart from Pat...
SWEET SOUNDING SITAR: Sitarist Mungal Patasar performs during the Voice of a People concert at Queen's Hall, St Ann's, on Friday night. Apart from Pat...

With its resplendent beaches, breathtaking ambience and laid back appeal, Tobago beckons.

But, tourism, the lifeblood of the island, has, within the last decade, also been its bane.

Hoteliers, small business operators and others dependent on the sector for their survival, have felt the pinch of the global economic meltdown — a trend which, they say, still persists.

President of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association (THTA), Nicholas Hardwicke, is hoping that the incoming Tobago House of Assembly (THA), will reverse this distressing scenario following the January 21, 2013 THA election.

Hardwicke insisted last week that the island’s economic future rests on tourism.

“What we are hoping for from any incoming administration is a greater focus and greater commitment to ensure that tourism remains firmly on the agenda for development in Tobago,” he told Sunday Newsday.

The THA is led currently by the People’s National Movement (PNM), which controls eight of the 12 seats in the Assembly. Its main challenger is the Ashworth Jack-led Tobago Organisation of the People. Both parties are expected to contest all 12 seats in the upcoming poll.

The Platform of Truth, headed by former THA Chief Secretary Hochoy Charles, will also field candidates in the election. The Movement for Social Justice, led by veteran trade unionist David Abdulah, will not contest the election, but has expressed an interest in the Local Government election, scheduled to take place around July 2013. The MSJ, one of the political parties which formed the People’s Partnership coalition in the run up to the May 24, 2010 general election, severed ties with the Government in June over issues of governance.

Hardwicke, owner of the Seahorse Inn in Grafton, noted that the existing Orville London-led THA had been pursuing a policy of diversification, away from tourism, since 2005.

However, he said the THTA has always maintained that Tobago’s future prosperity must be achieved by economic growth within the tourism sector.

“Not to say that tourism is our objective, but that tourism is our economic engine of growth through which we can achieve greater prosperity,” Hardwicke quickly added.

Hardwicke said the association disagreed with the THA’s diversification policy, on the basis that it ignored the island’s core strengths as a premier tourist destination.

“As a result of that, we would like to see a re-emphasis, in fact a re-affirmation, of the assembly’s commitment to tourism being central to our economic growth, as well as the attendant resources being put in place to support it — namely in terms of generic marketing for the destinations and key infrastructure issues such as the airport, sea port, air bridge and the sea bridge and the Police Service — the security set up on the island,” he said of their expectations for the incoming THA.

But the People’s Partnership (PP) Government has made overtures with respect to improving the island’s flagging tourism sector, most of which were presented during its second anniversary celebrations in May.

During a post-Cabinet news conference at the Magdalena Grand Resort, Lowlands, Tobago, on May 31, then Trade Minister Stephen Cadiz announced the establishment of a restructured Tobago Tourism Development Fund (TTDF) to bolster stagnant businesses and create new ones. The fund is expected to generate some $250 million.

Cadiz, on that occasion, said once the businesses met the criteria for the fund, the Government will work with the commercial banks with which they do business, with a view to enhancing their operations.

The minister, who noted that tourist arrivals in Tobago had declined since 2005, said the initiative was intended to increase tourist arrivals and the quality of room stock on the island. One of the motives behind the initiative, Cadiz had said, was that some business owners simply did not have sufficient money to invest in their operations.

“The hotel business is a peculiar business. Every ten years you have to literally gut your hotel and that is an average for the hotel industry. And for many years, with the arrival figures declining, hotels have not found the additional cash available to reinvest in the hotels,” Cadiz had told reporters.

Former Minister in the Ministry of Finance, Dr Delmon Baker, who played a lead role in the initiative, had said the ministry, in conjunction with the Tobago arm of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the Bankers’ Association, were determining the criteria to access the fund.

Baker, who also addressed the May 31 briefing, had said, “When we initially started on this project, it was envisioned for us, hotels whose room capacity was 50 rooms or less would be ideal for access to our fund, in addition to which those hotels that are 50 rooms and above would access the Government’s loan guarantee programme at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.”

Hotel operators, he said, must demonstrate they were able to pay the interest on their loans for the past three years and must be free of other financial obstacles.

“We are hoping that soon they will be contributors to the fund and we came up to a figure of about $250 million; $100 million being provisioned for fiscal 2011 to 2012 and $50 million every year thereafter for the next three years being provisioned by the Government,” said the Tobago West MP, who is now Minister of Tobago Development.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, speaking at the PP’s rally at Old Market Square, Scarborough, Tobago, in June, had also revealed plans to boost tourism on the island.

These include the appointment of a tourism attache, who will be based at the Trinidad and Tobago Embassy in the United Kingdom, and a plan to make Tobago a duty-free island.

Although he is pleased that the Government has taken steps to improve the sector, Hardwicke expressed some reservations about the practicality of the initiatives. And he called on the new THA to put proper and realistic measures in place to enable business owners to maximise their strengths.

Hardwicke said, “At the end of the day, tourism is all we have. It is the only industry that exists on this island that can touch, enrich and employ so many people.There is talk about bringing gas pipelines off the coast of Tobago, but how many people can realistically be employed in these industries if they really do come on line. Tourism is an industry for the people now. It can make a difference today and tomorrow.”

Hardwicke, who became head of the THTA in August 2011, said Trinidad and Tobago has had several opportunities within the last decade which the State had failed to capitalise on.

“People want change in their lifetime and for the last ten years we have had a lot of opportunity,” he said of the new proposals, including the Tobago Development Fund.

“We have had a lot of promises and very little delivery, and as a result we have found ourselves out of step with regard to regional and global development at a time when the world economy was going through some very hard times.

“We just really need to get back on those things and refocus, and the Government of the day — and I am not just talking about the Tobago House of Assembly, but the central Government — needs to back up some of the promises it has made with respect to its growth poles and the funding mechanisms that are supposed to be put in place with respect to the Tobago Development Fund, with some firm and concrete initiatives to ensure and maintain security and safety on the island, to get our international marketing fully out in the open, to get people confident to take that first step to start to re-invest and get back involved in the game.”

Currently, Hardwicke regards as lip-service, the measures outlined by the Government to boost the sector.

He said, “At the moment, it is all very well to say we have put a measure in that will allow banks to lend you money to refurbish and develop, but if people are not confident that it is going to make a difference in the long run they are not going to take that option and so we need to see those other aspects — the marketing, the infrastructure, put in place to really convince people that this time we are serious.”

Hardwicke said the effects of the global economic crisis had significantly impacted the industry.

“There is a fair degree of hurt within the industry itself because we have just endured what was for the most part a very tough four to five years. We are still going through it,” he said.

“Although there is certainly some progress and I think one can even say light at the end of the tunnel, it is still a very, very slow recovery that we are involved in. People are holding their own, but there is a certain degree of frustration that we are not emerging out of this as fast as we can.

“All around us we see opportunity and yet we simply cannot access it because either the banks are not lending, or there aren’t enough people on the island, or we don’t have enough airlift to bring people in.” He added, “We are holding our own but there is a growing sense of frustration that we are not moving quick enough in the direction that we should be to really be competitive and to be part of the global thrust to develop tourism initiatives.”

Deputy chairman of the Concerned Citizens of Tobago, Arthur Rollocks, also expressed some concern for the tourism sector, saying the new THA must work aggressively to address what he considered to be substandard service at some hotels and guesthouses. He told Sunday Newsday, “I have travelled to over 20 countries and the service in (our) hotels are not in keeping with international standards.”

Rollocks, who has spoken out on issues affecting Tobago over the years, said he was also concerned about the future of one of the island’s leading attractions, the Nylon Pool, where he claimed “there is nothing much to see”. He claimed the road from Castara to Charlotteville, in east Tobago, was also in dire need of repair.

Outside of tourism, Rollocks said the new Assembly must make a concerted attempt to complete all major unfinished projects on the island. Taking a jab at the current PNM-led THA, which he described as a “runaway horse,” Rollocks lamented the non-completion of the Shaw Park Cultural Complex, the controversial Scarborough Hospital and the Scarborough Library, which, he claimed, has been under construction for the past 15 years.

The Arthur NR Robinson International Airport, he said, was a “shame.”

“It is leaking and falling apart,” he claimed.

The New Grange and Roxborough Police Stations, he said, were in a dilapidated condition and needed to be rebuilt.

“There are some wives that have told me that they are ashamed to visit their husbands in these stations,” he said.

On education, Rollocks said there was a chronic shortage of teachers and equipment within the system.

“Teachers are only acting in positions but there is no confirmation,” he complained. He said the agriculture sector was also in shambles.

“If the ferry does not come we are in trouble. Farmers are receiving no proper help,” he said. Rollocks, who did not wish to say which party he would vote for in the upcoming poll, accused the existing THA of failing to prioritise its projects.

“We have lost the meaning of priority, emergency, accountability. We have lost that. Tobago is going backwards,” he said, adding the Central Government did not have the best interests of the island at heart.

“We are on the back burner in Tobago. Other projects in Trinidad are up and running. But Tobago has been abused, ill-treated, marginalised for as far as I could remember.”

Rollocks also expressed serious reservations about aspects of both the THA and the Government’s attempt at constitutional reform for the island.

“There are many areas that are not just grey but black,” he said of the Government’s proposed Green Paper on Internal Self-Government and the THA Bill.

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