Paliamentary committee member Wade Mark alleged poor financial oversight of the Tobago Tourism Agency (TTA), which he said had no internal nor external auditing, and had not presented its annual report.
In reply, however, TTA chairman Dr Sherma Roberts said her agency had adhered to the state enterprises performance monitoring manual and given monthly reports.
At Monday’s sitting of the Joint Select Committee on State Enterprises, Roberts said in 2017-2018 the TTA was initially allocated $1 million but actually given $13.6 million. In 2018-2019 it sought $141 million but received $20 millon; and in 2019-2020 it requested $130 million but got just $20 million.
“There is a big gap between our ambition and the financing of our projects,” she commented.
Oppositon senator Mark said since 2017, the agency had cumulatively received $54 million, but without financial oversight by the Ministry of Finance or Ministry of Tourism.
“Public accountability is extremely serious business,” Mark stormed. “You are going forward but have no system of accountability for public money. That is inexcusable.” Ministry of Tourism permanent secretary Richard Madray said any start-up organisation has its challenges. He said Cabinet said the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), via its Division of Tourism, has oversight of the agency.
Mark said the JSC may need to grill a more senior THA official, saying, “This cannot continue.”
Roberts said all the agency’s financials and procedures were conducted in line with the state enterprises manual, with oversight by the THA, to which the agency sent monthly statements.
JSC member Fazal Karim asked if foreign airlines are paid a subsidy to bring passengers to Tobago.
Agency CEO Louis Lewis replied he was confident most of the $40 million annual allocation had been used, for two years in succession, totalling $80 million.
Karim asked if any investigation or litigation had been undertaken for any misuse of those funds.
Lewis referred to one case before 2017.
THA Division of Tourism administrator Selma Graham said police investigations are continuing into a sum of $8 million.
The JSC compared the TTA with Tourism Trinidad Ltd (TTL) , since both were created from the Tourism Development Corporation.
TTL chairman Howard Chin Lee said his organisation gets more tourists than the TTA. The TTL focuses on tourism for Carnival, conferences and sports events, while the Tobago agency’s focus is on traditional sea, sun and sand tourism.
Roberts elaborated that Tobago’s niche tourism products centred on culture/heritage, wellness, romance, ecology and diving. She hoped for a 25 per cent hike in arrivals. Acting TTL CEO Heidi Alert said from 2018 to 2019, Trinidad had seen a 3.1 per cent hike in tourist arrivals, equal to 11,000 people, while hotel occupancy had risen from 59 per cent to 62 per cent.
Some discussion ensued as to what extent the two agencies should collaborate at world travel forums, with a general call for linkages but also separate identities for each island’s tourism offerings.
Mark asked if the just-restored historic buildings in Port of Spain can be part of the tourism product.
Madray said his ministry is in talks with cruise lines and the National Trust. Saying Trinidad has unique architecture, he said tourists love the experience of walking through Port of Spain, an experience they cannot get elsewhere in the Caribbean. He said tourists love to visit local cemeteries.
Chin Lee said how happy he was to see tourists at Maracas Beach. whose new facilities such as the car park, had given him a very positive experience on a recent visit.