CHAIR OF Trinidad Tourism Ltd Janelle “Penny” Commissiong was recently quoted as outwardly puzzling over declining tourist arrivals.
She remarked that the number of visitors to Trinidad in 2017 dropped 3.6 per cent from the previous year. Drawing a comparison between the Bahamas and TT, she noted that 6.3 million people visited those islands in 2017. In Trinidad we racked up a meagre 375,000.
As success leaves clues, so too does failure. While we await the results of what will surely be yet another expensive study by another needy consultancy firm, let’s examine three possible factors: weak marketing, poor product development, and dreadful customer service.
The marketing of Trinidad and Tobago as a destination has always been hobbled by incoherence and inadequacy. It’s almost as if we don’t understand ourselves and our own country. Consequently we’re unable to explain TT to other people. In a fiercely competitive environment made more so by social media and online marketing, we’ve fallen far behind.
Consider, for a moment, some of our promotional videos. They show off our beaches, dive sites and other tropical, daiquiri-esque themes. It makes no sense for travellers with a hankering for a beach vacation to travel three times the distance of their nearest option and pay more to do so just to come see us.
Our marketing must first wake up to a changed, digitally dominated world. It needs to effectively express what makes us unique. In just one day, you can start your morning at the beach on the North Coast, have lunch at the Asa Wright Nature Centre, and visit the Temple in the Sea at Waterloo in the afternoon. TT must look beyond beach, bikini and basal cell carcinoma tourism.
In our heads, at the level of the public and private sectors, this country remains wrapped up in renting hotel rooms. We should, instead, be selling experiences beyond the bed sheets.
Our marketing should tell the stories of what makes us a must-see destination. We must also compete in the world of all other tourism players: the digital realm of blogs, video content and other forms of targeted marketing that reach destination shoppers where they are, on their phones, tablets and laptops.
To market TT as a destination, though, our product development will need tuning up. For anyone who has ever taken visitors around this country, it can be quite embarrassing. There are several places where basic amenities can be hard, or impossible to come by. Rest areas, bathroom facilities, and sanitary eating establishments are scarce commodities in many communities. Visitors are expected to do as we Trinis do: water the trees and save more pressing biological transactions for back home. You can eat a pack of nuts and “drink ah Cokes” or take your chances with the chicken under the garden lamp.
Authenticity is one thing, but this country needs to do much more to cater for visitors. It, of course, goes beyond a clean place to pee. This country must create tourism products that bolster our reputation as a land of many places, faces and fascinating things to see and do.
Recently, a friend of mine’s shared some beautiful drone footage online of the abandoned Usine St Madeleine Sugar Factory. The images of this rusting hulk brought the tragedy of lost opportunity to mind.
This site could have been preserved as a sugar museum. Tourists could have been guided through the workings and history of sugar processing and rum distillation. If it were done in conjunction with Angostura, there could have been rum tastings and the sale of products and merchandising on site. There is also a golf course attached to the abandoned sugar factory. It’s a shame no one could see the glimmer of promise before the rust set in.
Finally, if we are going to throw open our doors for business, we have to be sure that we put out best foot forward and not in our mouths. TT needs a customer service renaissance that begins in the airport and trickles right down to the quaint guest house. Tourists can’t all be like Moses, ordained with the power to part the sea of belligerent airport personnel.
Finding the clues to our falling visitor arrivals shouldn’t present any significant challenge. Few countries in the region are blessed with our wealth of cultural diversity, historical heritage, and varied breathtaking landscapes. Few countries in the region are cursed with an absence of vision such as ours.