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Thursday 22 August 2019
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Throwing sand

“NEGATIVE publicity”, “consistent badgering”.

Sandals CEO Gebhard Rainer held no punches as he gave reasons why his company was pulling out of talks to build a hotel on environmentally-sensitive land at Buccoo, Tobago. Yet the details were short. Which commentators had crossed the line? Who had overstepped their right to ask questions and entered the realm of pestering?

What criticisms had been unjustified given the feeling of a lack of transparency? After a full media conference, we were left none the wiser. Indeed, the way the media was criticised, in the presence of Minister of Communications Stuart Young, itself lacked the detail and transparency that was being clamoured for.

For a company that was at one stage going to be granted, on a sole select basis, access to State land by Cabinet, it was a remarkably crusty outing and outcome. This is not the first time Sandals has been criticised. In 2016, it was severely chastised in Antigua for allegedly failing to pay sales taxes.

Last year, Sandals faced ire in Barbados over public access to the beach and concessions. When private companies are allowed to profit on the strength of arrangements and resources provided by the public sector, it is more than reasonable for these arrangements to face scrutiny. In fact, it is in the public interest that they are subject to detailed examination.

It is sad to see a potentially lucrative deal flounder. There is no doubt tourism in Tobago needs investment in order to give it a boost. International hotel chains have name-brand recognition that undoubtedly helps draw more visitors.

For a long time, Sandals has been one of those brands. At the same time, Tobago’s incredible natural beauty, its rich history, environment, and culture are attractions that are also world-famous. Such a stunning location would be a jewel in the crown of any serious hotel chain.

Given how this deal has faltered, there are lessons to be learned on all sides. Firstly, it seems the time when a government could easily operate on a sole select basis without open competitive tender for a multi-billion-dollar project is gone. Social media and lessons from the Udecott experience have meant there is increased vigilance.

This is more so in the absence of transparency, where there is the feeling that vital pieces of information had yet to be worked out or disclosed, particularly regarding how the environment would have been safeguarded. However, opposition for opposition sake was also clearly not the best approach to this matter, which required tact and interrogation of facts, not rumour and conjecture. Ultimately, what is clear is that citizens now want meaningful debate and no longer tolerate those who would seek to throw sand in their eyes.

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