Las Cuevas beach is facing several challenges, not the least of which are a malfunctioning sewer plant, inconsistent washroom opening hours, temporary closure of the sole on-site restaurant and loss of its Blue Flag status.
At first glance on a visit to Las Cuevas, you may not notice anything wrong, your attention drawn to the waves kissing the light-brown sands of the crescent-shaped beach on Trinidad's scenic north coast.
However, if you got hungry and decided to go in search of food, you'd notice McLean's Restaurant and Bar isn't open and there are no other food businesses nearby. A fruit vendor sometimes sets up in the parking lot, but that's about it.
Ray Charles, co-owner of McLean's, has been a tenant at the facility more than 37 years, first under the Tourism Ministry, then under the Tourism Development Corporation (TDC) and following the latter's closure, back under the ministry.
"We've been loyal tenants for so long yet when we asked the ministry to let us put up a small tent in the car park while they renovate, they said no. Under the TDC, we were allowed to do so when they renovated the premises. Things were much better under the TDC," Charles lamented.
The TDC closed in August 2017, five months after Cabinet decided to dissolve the entity and replace it with two new agencies, one focused on marketing Tobago, the other on Trinidad.
Charles told Business Day, "The bar and washrooms were renovated about a year ago before the TDC closed but I was made to close my restaurant for refurbishment works in April. Nothing started yet and I losing money, my customers suffering – is only snacks and coconuts selling and that (is) dependent on vendors being here. My business was the main place to get food when you come (to) Las Cuevas."
A clearly frustrated Charles said he decided to make his concerns public in hopes the project is started and completed within the five months, during which time he was told his business would remain closed.
"There's no need to do any set of big renovations, but since you tell me the restaurant have to close, why drag your feet in starting the work? The longer they take to start, the longer I can't operate my business and the longer my customers have to be inconvenienced."
Business Day contacted the ministry about Charles' complaints and was told, via email, that it was his request that prompted the restaurant's closure for repairs.
"It was the proprietor of McLean’s (Charles) who, at a site visit to the Las Cuevas Beach Facility conducted by ministry representatives, identified several leaks in the roof of the structure. The renovation projects being undertaken at the Las Cuevas Beach Facility are the responsibility of the ministry of tourism. The ministry is seeking to repair the structure and has prepared a request for proposals, in keeping with proper procurement practices, for the execution of these works."
Las Cuevas has a public washroom, the use of which cost TT$1 under the now defunct TDC. Charles said this was stopped when the ministry assumed responsibility for the beach. He argued the fee should still be charged to help offset maintenance costs.
That's not all. Charles and a female coconut vendor both complained to Business Day about inconsistent and often early closure of the washrooms.
The woman, who declined to give her name, said some days the washrooms are locked before 5 pm. "When people liming late on an afternoon, they not guaranteed the washrooms will be open. The ministry needs to ensure the place stay open like it used to when the TDC was around," she said.
Pointing to a grassy area behind McLean's, Charles claimed those in charge "are suffering people, forcing them to go in the bush if they can't 'hold it'."
The ministry denied the washrooms are being closed earlier than normal, telling Business Day the hours of operation have remained the same as they were under the TDC – 9 am to 6 pm.
Charles was surprised by the ministry's response, pointing out that as recently as July 7, the washrooms were closed by 5.30 pm. He said if management continues closing the facilities early, "the ministry should bring in some porta-potties (portable toilets) for the public's convenience."
Regrading the washroom user fee, the ministry said it does not yet have "the administrative authority and processes... to collect monies from the public's use of these washrooms."
Another concern raised by Charles was a missing motor at the sewer plant that's only a few feet behind the restaurant.
"During the transition last year from the TDC to the ministry, somehow, the motor for the pump in the sewer plant went missing. Nobody saw anything. We just realised one day the pump wasn't working and when we checked, we realised the motor was gone.
Charles said he contacted the ministry, requesting a replacement motor but was told this would be included in planned renovations.
"Why though? The TDC already renovated about a year ago. A new motor is much cheaper – and quicker to get installed – than changing out the plant or whatever they want to do. The pump helps in the purification of the sewage. Right now, the sewer full and there's a stench. Is only when the people who managing the place call a sewer truck to empty it that we get some relief, until the tanks fill up again, that is."
The ministry did not specifically address the matter of the "missing" motor, instead stating it was given responsibility for managing the Las Cuevas Beach Facility following the TDC's dissolution.
However, in a recent television interview, Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell said he was aware of the sewer issue and assured it would be addressed.
"They are developing an RFP (request for proposal) right now, to put that job out to tender, for the repair of that sewer issue. So that will be fixed in short order."
Mitchell also told the TV station consideration would be given to recommendations for extending the opening hours for the washroom facilities.
Declaring the place "was 1,000 times better when the TDC ran things," Charles told Business Day the minister needs to visit Las Cuevas to see what's happened to it.
Walking to the parking lot entrance, Charles said "you see that empty flag pole? That used to have a blue flag on it, letting people know this is a world class place, maintained to a high standard. Las Cuevas was the only beach in English-speaking southern Caribbean with that status. When the TDC closed, we lost our Blue Flag status because no one took over management of the programme."
The Blue Flag programme promotes sustainable development in freshwater and marine areas. It challenges local authorities and beach operators to achieve high standards in four categories: water quality, environmental management, environmental education and safety.
As of press time, the ministry was unable to provide answers on the status of the Blue Flag programme because the person in charge was said to be on vacation.
Business Day did get some insight into the situation from Joanna Moses-Wothke, CEO of Green TT and National Operator of Blue Flag TT.
"Every year you have to apply to maintain your Blue Flag status. The TDC officially closed in August 2017, but from around April of that year they were no longer able to maintain compliance because they were wrapping up operations. So, on May 3, 2017 Las Cuevas was removed from the list and the symbolic blue flag taken down."
Saying it's harder to attain than maintain Blue Flag status, Moses-Wothke told Business Day she tried to prevent the removal but to no avail.
"Another agency or even the ministry could have been appointed to take over maintenance and enforcement of the blue flag requirements. We suggested that but for whatever reason, it didn't happen. Applications are done every June, but I understand the ministry has decided not to apply this year because money was not allocated in the 2017-2018 budget – costs include monthly water testing by a certified lab. I also understand they are planning to apply in June 2019."
Explaining why Blue Flag is such a coveted designation, Moses-Wothke said in the minds of beachgoers and environmentally-conscious travellers, blue flag means a safe, clean beach.
"Not only does Blue Flag mean the water is clean and safe to bathe in and there are proper washroom facilities, it also promotes animal welfare. Animal-lovers tend to return to places where animal rights are enforced and efforts are made to reduce the stray population.
"Under blue flag, the TDC spent money to spay and neuter stray dogs in the area. Between 2014-2017, when Las Cuevas had blue flag designation, we saw a significant drop in the stray population. We did surveys and even users who didn't know about Blue Flag, the very things it stands for were what they cited about why they enjoyed visiting Las Cuevas."
Moses-Wothke expressed hope the beach would once again attain Blue Flag status, provided government allocates money for this. She also said Blue Flag TT has been in talks with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) for several years about designating King's Bay, Speyside and Pigeon Point. She said the THA, like the ministry, plans to apply in June 2019.