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Sunday 21 April 2019
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Silent majority wanted Sandals

Tobago advocacy group on resort pullout

An April 2016 map of the plans for Sandals resorts in Tobago. The resort chain however withdrew from the project because of
An April 2016 map of the plans for Sandals resorts in Tobago. The resort chain however withdrew from the project because of "negative publicity".

Farmers and small entrepreneurs were among the groups of Tobagonians eager to welcome Sandals International to Tobago before the resort chain decided last month against constructing a deluxe hotel on the island.

So claimed Kelvon Morris, spokesman of the newly-formed advocacy group Citizens In Support of Tobago Development.

"You would be surprised to hear the number of people that actually had projects in train geared towards benefiting from the Sandals experience," Morris said in a Sunday Newsday interview.

"Farmers, people invested in hatchery preparing for it. It is interesting when you go on the ground, people were excited about some of the activities that would have come from Sandals."

Saying he was surprised by the number of people who were excited about the project, Morris said the Sandals pullout highlighted the fact that many Tobagonians were not vociferous in their support of the project but chose to remain silent.

Kelvon Morris

"We recognise that that silence would have been one of the reasons why the naysayers' voices were heard. But if you do a survey around Tobago, the majority of Tobagonians really wanted the project."

Morris admitted, however, a comprehensive survey was not undertaken to determine the extent to which Tobagonians supported the project. He said feedback was gauged "on the ground."

So why did he feel Tobagonians choose to remain silent?

"Tobagonians are naturally paid back. We are very reserved and normally keep most of our thoughts to ourselves. So, you would hear things and say, 'Why are Tobagonians not riling up?'

"They would have a view but would prefer to keep it to themselves."

Asked, then, if this posture would have worked against them if Sandals did set up business on the island, Morris said: "Behaviour once repeated often enough, tends to be changed. So, with Sandals, which is service-oriented, it would have brought that culture to the entire scenario."

He claimed those in the agriculture sector were ready to "change their mentality" with a view to embracing modern technology in farming.

During a news conference at the Office of the Prime Minister, St Clair, on January 15, Sandals Resort International CEO Gebhard Rainer said the company was no longer interested in constructing a hotel in Buccoo.

Rainer said the decision was prompted by "negative publicity" and "consistent badgering."

Sceptics also complained Government was not forthcoming in providing details about the project, especially in relation to its potential impact on the environment.

Morris, who works in the tourism sector, agreed negative publicity did play a part in the company's decision to sever ties with the project.

"When one wants to disrupt any kind of development, we know that the environment is the easiest claim and the voices that started to put up those kinds of challenges, with Sandals being an international, reputable brand, would not want to be tied up with that."

He added: "It was the posture of all those who were actually laying claim to challenging Sandals. I am sure they made a business decision that said they were not going to go through all that for a destination they hadn't been tried and tested in."

Morris said Citizens In Support of Tobago Development was essentially a response to the failure of Tobagonians to speak out about the benefits that could have been derived from a Sandals on the island.

"This (group) is really a clarion call to all that when there are positive developments on the island, that we all come out in support as early as possible so that we don't lose opportunities like that."

The group, comprising stakeholders from various sectors, includes former Tobago Chamber of Commerce president Demi John Cruickshank and others.

Morris said forging linkages with stakeholders was of paramount importance.

"One of the things we are looking to do going forward is really bringing together all of the stakeholders. We think that is important for the development of the island, so that when we speak about Tobago's development, we speak in one voice.

"Every institution that is integral to Tobago's development, so we would form alliances and have them involved in the discussion."

He said one of the group's priorities would be to hold discussions with youth-oriented organisations and other bodies "so that we can have a meshing of views and really have a clear synergy of where we want to go from here."

Saying Tobago has tremendous potential, Morris expressed confidence the island will bounce back from the Sandals pullout.

Morris said: "Tobago is an island destination with some of the best sites in the western hemisphere and it is just a matter for Tobagonians to be a little more open-minded to the kind of development required so we could move the tourism product forward."

"There is always an opportunity because people are always interested in the next best thing and Tobago provides that platform. In terms of direct foreign investment Tobago will always be attractive," he added.

During the launch of her Monday Mixer series at Milford Court, Bon Accord, Tobago West MP Shamfa Cudjoe declared she was "hard hit" by the Sandals withdrawal from the project, which would have elevated the island's profile as a tourist destination.

She said, however, there were several projects already on stream, geared toward boosting the island's tourist sector.

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