By ELIZABETH GONZALES
If Tobago's tourism is to rebound, government intervention is necessary to encourage trade and investment in existing and new businesses, Claude Benoit, chairman of the Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce believes strongly.
“We have a lot of investors in Tobago who would have invested their life savings on this island. That is what we at the chamber do. But we need the government to make that easy for us. We need them to facilitate and put things in place so what we invest in will work well."
The troubles that have dogged the air and sea bridge, which Tobagonians say have curtailed revenue, forcing some businesses, especially hoteliers to cut back staff, must be corrected to reboot the economy, Benoit told Business Day on Tuesday.
"The government would not have done their job in ensuring that the sea and air bridge are fully operational. There is a disconnect as to the responsibility to ensure a reliable service so that when the business community invests, we will have good returns and a booked economy.”
During a recent think tank session, the chamber saw guest houses and some hotels empty. Many have struggled to even attain 50 per cent occupancy as the figures are significantly down – as low as zero per cent.
"We approached the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) with the idea that we can work together to come up with a plan to see if we can have a bailout mechanism and put systems in place to stabilise the downward spiral that we are in,” Benoit said.
Benoit described reports of low occupancy rates by members of the Tobago Unique Bed, Breakfast and Self-Catering Association and the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association as disheartening. He said despite attempts by the chamber to stabilise Tobago’s economy, little to nothing could be done unless air and sea transport are improved and become reliable.
“Yes, we have been working on that issue, yes, we understand what is going on, and we are just in awe that the fast-ferry aspect of the sea bridge is not fixed yet.
"In other words, it is our lifeline, and if you sever the lifeline, people on this side will suffer. There is no 'if' or 'maybe' about that... it hasn’t been working properly. The passenger part, to bring people to fill up the guest houses, has been severed and the cargo part is moving along, but with lots of issues.”
The THA however isn't making any comment on occupancy levels since it has no reports from stakeholders, Nadine Stewart Phillips, Secretary for Culture, Tourism and Transportation told Business Day.
"Unless I have that information I cannot comment on claims that guest houses in Tobago have low occupancy rates,” she said on Tuesday.
Even when told about the figures cited by industry stakeholders, including staff at the state-owned Magdalena Grand, Phillips replied, “Unless the division did its own report, then my answer remains the same. I cannot comment on an investigation done by you.”
The challenges are real, Benoit said, and called on the THA to restore the confidence of domestic and international visitors.
“All this is premised on the fact that the sea bridge needs to be fixed, and very soon. The fixing part has not happened."
The chamber plans to approach government for a financial package to help businesses.
"Even though we are putting a committee together to see how we can get the bailout and how we can stabilise the Tobago economy, we are really hoping and praying the sea bridge situation is dealt with so that we can get back some confidence to get people coming again to the island.”