Transparency advocates say the only real way to determine the viability of a Sandals hotel in Tobago is to examine the financial and operating records of the Hilton Trinidad, Hyatt Regency and Magdalena Grand.
Government built all three properties, which are managed and operated by third parties – in the case of the Trinidad hotels they are managed by the Hilton and Hyatt brands respectively while NEF and JM Associates manages the Magdalena Grand.
This was the focus of a panel discussion held on the evening of on November 9 at the Noor Hassanali Auditorium, UWI St Augustine Campus.
The panellists were Afra Raymond, Disclosure Today CEO Rishi Maharaj and accountant, David Walker. The latter shared his perspective as a Tobagonian and as the representative of a group of landowners in north-east Tobago who are interested in turning their land into an eco-tourism destination.
Maharaj told the audience about Disclosure Today’s on-going efforts to access information under the Freedom of Information Act about the three aforementioned hotels from the Finance Ministry, Board of Inland Revenue, UDeCOTT and eTecK.
“The first point of call for public authorities is to deny a request until probed and there is a reluctance to provide data as to the performance of hotel stock and lessons learned to guide us going forward. What we know so far is that there have been no audits by Corporation Sole on hotel stock in Trinidad. Hotels are managed by two separate entities and it appears little information is shared between them.”
Speaking with Newsday after the panel discussion, Maharaj said it was still difficult to form an opinion on whether or not a Sandals hotel would be good for Tobago’s tourism product.
“The government has invested in hotels to scale and the Prime Minister has alluded to that – Hilton, Hyatt and Magdalena Grand – but do we understand exactly how those hotels are operating? Do we understand what problems we’ve had? Have there been lessons learned? I think once this information is gathered and the public is made aware of it, only then can we make a proper evaluation of Sandals or any other hotel being a viable addition to Tobago.”
Regarding Disclosure Today’s requests for information, Maharaj explained that the NGO was trying to understand the working of the management contracts between Government and the hotel chains which manage these properties.
“We also want to understand what has been the profitability over the years as well as what value they have been brought into the State. Has there been trade and development for workers to develop their skills in hotel management and hospitality? And also, in most of these contracts, for example, there is a fact where a sinking fund, into which both Government and the managing entity would put money for upkeep and upgrades. Unless we learn lessons from these things, we (TT) may repeat the same mistakes when we negotiate with entities like Sandals.”
Maharaj’s point about needing information if we are to learn from our mistakes was echoed by Raymond.
“We are not able to decide what approach to take,” Raymond told Newsday, “unless we know how the existing investments have performed. This is important in the case of public interest. More than TT$1.8 billion was invested in these three hotels yet we do not have any metrics, we do not have any audits, on their performance. Meanwhile, based on figures stated by Sandals’ owners, about $3.5 billion would be spent to build Sandals Tobago.”