While expressing disappointment that the Sandals Tobago project has been abandoned by the resort chain, the TT Chamber of Industry and Commerce has observed the country has to learn from this failure if it is to rebuild the tourism sector.
In a media release yesterday, the chamber said one such failure was the “glacial pace” at which negotiations were conducted between SRI and Government.
“It has been over two and a half years since the initial announcement that the Government was negotiating to bring the Sandals brand to Tobago. The MoU took one year and three months to negotiate and still had not reached the stage at which the parties would have been able to conclude commercial arrangements. The glacial pace of the negotiations, or at least the failure to provide stakeholders with an adequate sense of progress, further contributes to a negative image of Trinidad and Tobago and exemplifies the challenges we face in terms of the ease in doing business here.”
On Tuesday, SRI CEO Gebhard Rainer said “negative publicity” and a “consistent badgering” had been the deciding factors in the resort chain’s pullout from the Tobago project.
And while the chamber acknowledged there has been “some premature and ill-informed commentary”, it said a “commercially viable solution” was also necessary as “reasonable questions” have been asked by industry stakeholders.
However, the chamber said it’s view was that a “Sandals-managed hotel property in Tobago could have provided a catalyst for the development of the Tobago tourism product.”
“We never shared the view that the advent of a Sandals property would so dominate the Tobago tourism market that it would serve to destroy all other competitors. Every successful tourism destination is successful because they provide a degree of variety and choice, something that every property understands they benefit from.”
“The loss of this opportunity represents a setback in triggering a new growth opportunity in Tobago in particular, and in the Trinidad and Tobago economy in general. If the tourism sector is to make a positive impact on the broadening of our country’s economic base, a significant investment in the sector is necessary, along with a clear strategy.”
The chamber said a “well negotiated deal” with SRI could have provided this base upon which further investments could have built.
The chamber said Government has an important role to play in “catalysing” the tourism sector which relies on publicly provided infrastructure and services such as airports, utilities and public services like immigration, safety and destination marketing.
The chamber also expressed support “in principle” for Government being an anchor to the property development, as “it is a globally recognised practice that hotel developers – even in the private sector – rely on successful global brands to manage their properties under management agreements.”
“That being said, we agree that the agreement negotiated must be fair to all parties.”
The chamber said the task of catalysing the Tobago tourism had to be done and pledged to “provide whatever support we can.”
Meanwhile, the door may have slammed shut for any Tobago project as attempts at additional information for SRI’s departure was met with a firm “that’s it from us” by regional public relations manager Sunil Ramdeen.
While efforts to contact SRI deputy chairman Adam Stewart via email and other social platforms were unsuccessful, Ramdeen responded to requests for an interview by the short statement.
SRI’s withdrawal was also reported by other Caribbean newspapers, including the Jamaica Observer which is owned by Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart. Stewart is SRI chairman.
In the Observer’s online report, SRI, in a statement thanked the Prime Minister for inviting them to “explore the possibility of bringing the Sandals brand to Tobago” although the project was not in its “original short term plans.”
“We would like to thank Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and his Government for inviting us to explore the possibility of bringing the Sandals brand to Tobago just over two years ago, and for their tremendous support throughout this process. While such a project was not in our original short-term plans, we have always found Tobago to be an amazing destination with tremendous potential, and we signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the Government to guide these discussions and explore the opportunity further,” Sandals said.
“While this project is not right for us at this time, we commend both Prime Minister (Keith) Rowley and his Government on their vision for developing Tobago, and we wish them every success with future plans for the island.”
The paper also noted that Finance Minister Colm Imbert, in his 2019 budget presentation, had identified the 750-room Sandals and Beaches Resort as a major turning point for the economy of Tobago.