Government’s decision to construct a Sandals resort in Tobago will help to quickly bolster the island’s declining economy, believes Louis Lewis, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Tobago Tourism Agency.
“That initiative is something the tourism agency really endorses and it can’t happen fast enough. Some are actually looking for the project to get off the ground,” he told Business Day in an interview on Sunday at Leve-Global’s Love Is In The Air at Villa Being, Arnos Vale, Tobago.
Now in its third year, the event, hosted by Dr Auliana Poon, founder and managing director of the Leve-Global Group, showcased the talents of TT's fashion designers, culinary practitioners, artisans and entertainers.
It sought to project Tobago as an ideal romance destination.
Although Lewis could not give any specifics about the proposed project, outside of “my understanding that an MoU (memorandum of understanding) has been established,” he said Sandals was “critical for the survival of Tobago in a very competitive market.”
Lewis said the island was in dire need of high quality rooms.
“One of the deficiencies we have is a solid bank of upper-end rooms and most of our international flights are shared and all of them are subsidised,” said Lewis, who most recently served on the St Lucia Tourist Board from February 2008 to January 2017 in the position of director of tourism, as well as CEO.
“So, once you get that economies of scale going by having a greater bank of rooms and in the upper category – because it is an island, it is finite – what you want to focus on is quality rather than value. So, it has to go up and it has to go wide at the same time.”
The proposed billion-dollar, 750-room project, expected to be built on the Buccoo Estate, No Man’s Land, has been a major talking point in recent months, with some Opposition members accusing Government of having a secret deal with Sandals Resorts International (SRI).
Adam Stewart, SRI’s CEO and deputy chairman, dismissed this view in a February interview, telling reporters via video conferencing from Barbados, “What exists is a non-binding memorandum of understanding between both parties which addresses the scale of the resort, employment opportunities and training which would be available to locals.”
Saying tourism provided a platform for economic development, Lewis, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus, said the island’s success would depend largely on the quality of resources available to make it happen.
Lewis acknowledged the view among some that development in Tobago, particularly within the tourism sector, has been slow, saying some of the concerns were justified.
However, he assured things would be on the upswing after this year’s national budget.
“Right now, we have missed a cycle by virtue of the sequence in which the agency (Tobago Tourism Authority) was established (after Government’s decision to disband the Tourism Development Authority and establish two entities to market Trinidad and Tobago separately).
“So, once the budget process goes through in September, at the beginning of the financial year, where we will have an allocation specifically for the marketing of the destination, then you will start to see things move around.”
In the interim, Lewis said the agency was not simply twiddling its thumbs.
For instance, Lewis said it has negotiated within its existing agreement with some airlines to have a dedicated marketing programme.
“Some of that has netted over £600,000 (TT$5.8 million) that we did not have. So, that is like money with no money,” he claimed.
Lewis claimed as a result of this initiative, “Tobago has been advertised in places that never existed before.”
In January, he said, the island was featured in the Telegraph in the United Kingdom (UK). Last week, the agency also launched an initiative in Marie Claire and Home Woman magazines.
“These magazines carry a demographic for females from 20 right up to 45 or 50. The ladies are the ones who make the ultimate decision in terms of where people visit, and looking at the demographic profile of the visitors who are coming in, we have cornered the market for the decision-makers.
“So, you will start to see a greater demand for Tobago and when we get a full budget we will see things move significantly.”
Asked about the agency’s overall marketing strategy, Lewis said greater attention would be paid to the reasons people visit Tobago as opposed to where they stay on the island.
“We will see that purpose of visit feature more in our promotions.”
Also on the drawing board is a plan to digitise key elements of their marketing.
“I can’t remember the last time I picked up a brochure or a pamphlet. What we need to look at is how we interact and engage with our visitors, which is in the digital format. So, you’ll see that spearheading our initiatives as we go forward.”
In tandem with this, Lewis said, were plans to develop an airlift strategy which allows the island convenient access to all the points of the major market sources.
“Tobago has been very strong in Europe and the UK has accounted for more than 50 per cent of the stay over arrivals for international destinations. We also have a very good airlift with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic coming in to the island, so, we are consolidating that position as the base and then reaching out to Germany and the Scandanavian regions. And then we are also looking at North America.”
Noting that some islands close to Tobago were attracting as many as one million visitors a year, Lewis said greater focus would also be paid to North American territories as a means of increasing arrivals to the destination.
“That is the general concept we are taking to increase arrivals and as a result of that, we will be seeing a tremendous increase in the level of benefits because that’s another area we are going to be paying attention to.”
But the local content in pushing Tobago’s economy has not gone unnoticed, Lewis assured.
He said while 50 per cent of international visitors come from the UK, 60 per cent of overall arrivals to Tobago originate from Trinidad.
“And that is the island in the region that has the strongest domestic market and so we would be seeing some attention being paid to that market.”
Lewis said the agency is expected to launch a consumer campaign from today and continuing tomorrow and Saturday, to further showcase Tobago as the ideal tropical destination.
He said they have developed a theme, Come Back To Tobago, to recapture travellers who have sought alternative destinations over the years because of easier access, alluding to the recent sea bridge woes.
“So, you would be seeing training taking place throughout the island.”
The public awareness campaign would be led by the Division of Tourism.
“It will be very comprehensive and broad-based to try to cause a change of attitude and perception of the industry because there is the prevailing perception that it is foreign and not sufficiently integrated.”
Lewis argued, however, there were many beneficiaries within the Tobago tourism sector, some of whom were not even aware of how significantly they benefit.
“So, the typical person working in an insurance company does not necessarily appreciate the fact that most of the insurance premiums may be coming from somebody working in the tourism or an establishment in the tourism industry, and as a result, is contributing that significant component to their own sustainability.
“Even people who work at supermarkets, not recognising that the employees at the supermarkets shopping in those establishments are contributing towards their own viability.”
Lewis said the agency was about honing what he called the “economic connectivity” of tourism in terms of its benefits for the island, while at the same time trying to engender a greater appreciation for the industry.
“But bear in mind, there is nothing happening in tourism that we don’t have to do for ourselves. And the issue is how we do it for ourselves first and then invite the visitors to participate.
“So, it is not just about creating improvements for visitors but creating an improvement in life for ourselves and inviting the visitors to participate.”