Tobago Tourism Agency Ltd CEO Louis Lewis has denied allegations by Couva North MP Ramona Ramdial that “ghost hotels” qualified to be on their listing as recipients for the $50 million upgrade fund.
The Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association (THTA) also expressed scepticism about "many" of the "undeserving" grant recipients.
According to a THTA press release on Saturday, the tourism agency's list of properties set to receive the majority of the Government’s $50 million upgrade funding features 449 small (two-seven rooms) and medium-sized properties (eight-74 rooms). The hotel association said 116 properties listed had no room count while 154 had no online content. The association said many of the properties listed were unknown to them.
Ramdial on Monday called on THA Chief Secretary and Secretary of Tourism, Culture and Transportation Ancil Dennis to come clean and explain how questionable “ghost hotels” qualified for the funding.
Responding to the allegation on Monday, Lewis said the idea of "ghost hotels" being approved for funding was "inaccurate" and cited a May 2019 tourism product audit done by the agency. The audit, which was made public last year, revealed Tobago has at least 3,700 rooms, offered by 580 properties. These properties include large hotels and villas, small properties offering bed and breakfast services, as well as a number of self-catering establishments. The audit also revealed 80 per cent of the places of accommodation did not have a modern website to interact with potential clients, make reservations and complete payment.
Addressing the claims made by the hotel association, Lewis said the protocol for applying for the grant is stringent.
He added, “In the event that there are (discrepancies), there are conditions for accessing the grant which would nullify the concerns as the applicants are required to show proof of BIR certificate of clearance, proof of operations for at least one year, evidence of business registration, evidence of hotels tax receipts for three months prior to the closure of the borders and other criteria.”
The hotel association also asked that the grant be placed under the control of the Business Development Unit of the Division of Community Development, Enterprise Development and Labour. It said the grants and/or loans can then be made available to qualifying applicants from the accommodation sector at low interest rates for ten years with a moratorium on repayment for two years.
According to the association, over 5,000 people work in the Tobago tourism industry, making it the largest employer after the THA, adding that the large accommodation sector employs over 1,000 people yet this sector was awarded the smallest proportion of the relief grant – just $4 million of the $50 million grant.
"The large hotels alone pay in excess of $33 million in taxes annually. It is the large and medium-sized properties that guarantee airlift, as foreign tour operators will generally not contract with small accommodation providers. Neglecting the large hotels will only delay, or worse yet prevent, the revival of an already fragile industry, most of whose employees have yet to receive any salary or rent relief grants. The allied sector – diving, tours, food and beverage, transport, entertainment, weddings and events, agriculture, to name a few – all depend on the tourism sector, and in particular the large and medium-sized hotels, for their survival."
Ramdial urged the Chief Secretary to consider and implement the alternative proposal, noting that failure to incorporate the recommendations would be seen as a strategy of election campaigning by the PNM-led THA to distribute free money to "undeserving, unregistered hotels."
Dennis dismissed the concerns saying no unregistered business will be able to access the funds according to the guidelines.
“According to the required criteria for qualification, all applicants must be tax compliant, VAT compliant where applicable and their businesses must be registered. So, no unregistered property, no unregistered business would be able to access these funds according to the guidelines,” he said.
Dennis believes the hotel association's main grouse is related to the breakdown in the funding for types of hotels.“That is where the main issue is,” he said.
Dennis was expected to meet the association on Sunday “to hopefully bring this to an amicable solution.”