“They say when trouble comes close ranks,” the novelist Jean Rhys wrote. And so must be the approach when it comes to Trinidad and Tobago, two very different economic zones, in facing the covid19 pandemic. While the manufacturing sector is slowly re-awakening in Trinidad, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Tobago remains in a difficult position given the orientation of its tourism economy. That must change.
In Trinidad, manufacturing is resuming, retail could follow, and services have gone online, but recreation remains in dire straits on both islands. In Tobago, though, where tourism is the second most important generator of employment, the challenges are more extreme.
With an estimated workforce of 5,000 people, tourism is one of the largest employers on the island, and second only to the Tobago House of Assembly. This means the $50 million grant to hotels is vital. Still, it is a plaster on a problem that needs a more enduring cure.
There have been complaints about the lack of an online presence of many of the entities that have been allocated funding. And some have queried why larger facilities, that employ about one fifth of the workforce, have only benefited to the tune of $4 million. These issues reflect the need for the overall operating environment to be properly regulated and fair, something that benefits the economy as a whole, not just hotels. While larger hotels present troubling issues of systemic risk, they have assets to leverage which smaller entities do not. And it is important to not make the mistakes seen in bailouts all over the world where corporate chains applied for and received funding intended for entities more at risk of shuttering.
Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis is of the view that now is not the time to attract visitors to the island and it is laudable that he’d like the focus to be on improving the tourism product. Down the road however, as countries like Australia and New Zealand create bubbles for travel between them, the role of Trinidad visitors has to be drawn upon. Visitors from Trinidad have long played a major role in keeping Tobago’s tourism alive, particularly during off-season. Hence the timely appeal from Assemblyman Farley Augustine for good customer service to Trinidadians as the country slowly reopens.
The THA may also wish to team up with Caricom. Universal entry standards could facilitate package deals involving movement between the islands, spreading inflows and offering a unique package to what will soon be an even more overcrowded market.
Meanwhile, in terms of diversification, there are reforms that should be fast-tracked. Martin George, the chairman of the Tobago Business Chamber, has called for the repeal of the Foreign Investment Act, legislation which he believes hinders the inflow of capital. He has also called for the removal of VAT as a means to stimulate spending as well as attract greater levels of settlement from retirees.
These are the kind of creative ideas that must be embraced if Tobago is to reopen.