By ELIZABETH GONZALES and SASHA HARRINANAN
This Easter is a far from happy one for many resort and guest house owners in Tobago. Some have no guests at all, while others have few in their rooms, struggling to reach 50 per cent occupancy, with only one telling Business Day that it's full.
It's the continuing saga of a shaky sea bridge and overburdened airlift that has been plaguing transport between Trinidad and Tobago for a few years now.
The long Easter weekend and two-week school break is usually the peak of domestic tourism for Tobago.
But many Trinidadians are heading to other destinations rather than chance being stranded at the Port of Spain terminal, even with confirmed tickets.
The only hope is international tourists arriving on direct flights, mostly from Europe, which the head of the Tobago Tourism Agency (TTA) says are up.
At the heart of the domestic woes is the drydocking of the TT Express and TT Spirit, the latter which had a false start in sailings after being withdrawn last week for additional sea trials, after an announcement it would be ready for duty this Easter.
The slower Cabo Star can't adequately meet the demand.
Accommodation on Caribbean Airlines (CAL) flights at no additional cost is only limited to confirmed ferry ticket holders for sailings prior March 27.
CAL has previously said it expected to provide 1,220 flights for March, and the use of Liat aircraft to increase flights is likely to give a much needed boost to domestic arrivals. Liat flights will continue until April 30.
Indeed from CAL's perspective, reservations for Tobago "are higher than in previous years" says Dionne Ligoure, the airline's head of corporate communications as are those for Easter travel to other destinations.
This lifeline, however, has come too late for Tobago hoteliers, some say. And a fire on Tuesday on one of the water taxis added to the sea bridge this week, reliable in the past, may cast a cloud of doubt over travellers.
Spence Holiday Resort at Crown Point is one of the few exceptions to the Easter slump, as all 27 of its rooms are booked with guests having confirmed plane and boat tickets in hand, a customer service representative told Business Day, confident that they will arrive on the island.
But at Jimmy’s Holiday Resort in Crown Point, confirmed boat and plane tickets make little difference.
Managing to hit the 50 per cent occupancy mark, it has, however, been a struggle to book all 20 self-contained apartments since last Easter.
“Trinidadians, even with a confirmed ticket, not taking the chance to come here. They can easily go to another island that is cheaper and has a booming tourism. Why travel to Tobago when you have to take a whole day to get here and maybe two to three days to return?” asked a spokesperson.
That ferry passengers have to go to the Port of Spain terminal, to take a shuttle to Piarco airport for the Tobago flights is discouraging.
“Even with a confirmed boat ticket you have to take a two-hour shuttle to Piarco, then wait another three hours for a flight, and if you have a car, wait until the Cabo Star docks at the Scarborough port at 11 pm to collect your vehicle.”
The state-owned Magdalena Grand Beach and Golf Resort in Lowlands, which it was recently revealed has sustained a $400 million loss over a ten-year period, is reporting a 40 per cent occupancy rate for this Easter, compared with 62 per cent last year, for its 178 rooms, a spokesman said.
President of the Tobago Unique Bed and Breakfast & Self-catering Association Kaye Trotman said this year "is the worst ever".
“It is bad even before the last boat was withdrawn from the sea bridge. This year is the worst because of the unpredictability of the air and sea bridges. Even though they are trying to sort it out, people are making alternative arrangements in Trinidad instead of their annual plans in Tobago,” she said.
Trotman said her bed and breakfast accommodation in Bon Accord, Native Abode, has zero occupancy except for a few reservations for Good Friday night only.
“Normally I would have been fully occupied from Wednesday before the long weekend to (Easter) Tuesday."
She's not optimistic about a turnaround in time for the Tobago Jazz Experience, a concert series already reduced to two days from a week-long festival.
“Even for jazz I have no figures, no reservations, the guest houses are basically as empty as can be.
“We have to wait and see, based on the advertising that is done for the Jazz festival, on how it will attract those from the domestic market.“The question is how much can Caribbean Airlines take even with the LIAT aircraft, since that extra aircraft is basically facilitating those who would have made bookings on the ferry; it’s not to accommodate those who might have changed their minds at the last minute,” she said.
At Rainbow Resorts in Crown Point, a spokesperson told Business Day that out of 14 rooms, only four will be occupied for the weekend.
“When guests made reservations, they weren’t quite sure because of the issues with the boat or plane, and they were waiting to see if things got better. Our guests are now saying they are not confident that they will come over without facing any issues. Many of our visitors are trying to
avoid the headache even with confirmed tickets in hand. They don't want
to get stranded’,” said the spokesperson.
For Unis Benn of Benn’s Holiday Apartment in Signal Hill, the solution might be to get out of the business altogether.
Benn said this was the first Easter that she has recorded zero occupancy.
“I only have a two-bedroom holiday apartment and I have never seen a situation as bad as this. It is really terrible. Even for the Carnival season I was empty, people called and cancelled because they couldn’t secure a ticket to come over.
“Right now, I am considering long term rental because it’s already Monday (last) and I haven’t received any calls for reservations,” Benn told Business Day.
Tobago stakeholders' outlook may be bleak but an official of the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (PATT) felt optimistic of last minute sales for ferry tickets.
"People want to know if we still have tickets available for the Easter sailing or they're trying to confirm if their sailing is still on as scheduled."
Before a fire on board the Trini Flash, on its return trip to Trinidad from Tobago on Tuesday, was put out and 63 passengers were rescued, the PATT official told Business Day ferry bookings were marginally down.
"This year's figures for Easter weekend ticket sales are slightly lower than last year," the official said. Remember we had issues on the sea bridge in 2017 too, so passengers are aware of the situation and that may be why the figures are similar. However in 2016, our last normal year in terms of sailings, we sold much more tickets for the ferry service."
The PATT official said 682 tickets were sold for the sailings on Wednesday, while close to 800 tickets each were sold for the sailings today and tomorrow.
"We have much more Trinis going to Tobago than tourists on all of the sailings."
In contrast to the domestic woes, Tobago is seeing an increase in foreign visitors, particularly from the United Kingdom (UK), TTA CEO Louis Lewis told Business Day.
"For the time being, we've been focusing on the international market, targeting arrivals via the five existing direct flights to Tobago, and some that use CAL to come over after arriving in Trinidad."
Specifically, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways (BA) and Thomas Cook airlines all have direct flights from London to Tobago.
Virgin Atlantic flies in on Saturdays and Thursdays from Gatwick international airport. BA operates on Saturdays and Tuesdays, also out of Gatwick, while Thomas Cook has one flight, on a Sunday, that it operates out of Heathrow, London and is a non-stop flight to Tobago.
Lewis says while Virgin Atlantic "resumed its service in 2014, BA has been in the market from about 2009 and Thomas Cook started this January. Given the domestic situation, these are critical for maintaining Tobago's connectivity with the international market."
Lewis says TTA's winter 2018 promotion in Tobago's biggest market, the UK, is paying off.
"We've seen double-digit growth there, with tour operators who feature Tobago getting a lot more business than usual."