With TT’s borders still closed to foreign markets to minimise the threat of covid19, much attention is being placed on domestic tourism to help rebuild Tobago’s economy.
On June 4, the Division of Settlements, Urban Renewal and Public Utilities even launched an I Love Tobago gateway sign in Scarborough to re-instil a sense of pride and patriotism in citizens.
The sign is also seeks to place the issue of domestic tourism into sharper focus by re-position the island as the preferred tourist destination in the region, post covid19.
And while Tobago’s tourism stakeholders are breathing a sigh of relief – some having barely survived almost three months of lockdown – they are adopting a wait and see approach on whether the thrust toward domestic tourism will bear fruit.
They are hoping, though, the Government’s plan to reopen bars, casinos and beaches from tomorrow, will generate some much needed economic activity.
“I am sure in time, things will improve but I expect there is going to be a fairly slow and soft start,” restaurateur Nicholas Hardwick told Sunday Newsday.
For Hardwick, Tobago has no choice but to focus on domestic tourism given the reality that the borders are still closed to the international market.
However, he noted talk of the desire of Trinidadians to come to Tobago, may, for now, be just that.
“Domestic tourism is the only option we have in the short term but it still needs to be seen as to how it will materialise because most of us have contact with people from Trinidad, many of whom expressed the intention to come to visit Tobago.
“However, it is very early and we are not seeing that translate into actual travel or bookings.”
Hardwick, owner of the Seahorse Inn Restaurant & Bar, in Black Rock, claimed ferry and airline services are indicating that all of their seats are booked.
He said this may be so because of the social distancing protocols that are still in place to limit the spread of the virus. Airlines and ferries are operating at half their usual passenger capacity.
“So, while there may be more services, the capacity of those services is reduced and that is causing an absence of seats.”
Hardwick said although there appears to be a surplus of demand, there is an “absence of action in actually converting that demand to people coming up at the moment.”
He reasoned: “The main issue seems to be a lack of capacity on the air and sea bridge and a lack of confidence in the travelling public based on past experiences for reductions in those services, to convert the interest into an actual physical attempt to come.”
Hardwick said while it may take some time for that confidence to come, the Government must let the public know that the regulations implemented on the sea and air bridge during covid19 are likely to be a feature of travel between the two islands going forward.
“But unfortunately, everytime there is a news conference they keep on talking about potential second waves of this virus and maybe dialling back some of the opening up protocols if necessary.
“I think everytime something like that is said – and it is a correct procedure if it comes to that – it undermines the ability of people to really say there maybe something that will compromise their journey once they even start to undertake it. So, it is just a matter of timing and confidence.”
The former Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association president acknowledged there is considerable interest in coming to Tobago.
“But it is not, at this point in time, translating into actual physical travel and bookings.”
He continued: “We have to wait to see how that changes and hope that it does because it is not just essential for the industry and for the country to get the economy going again.
“But, if we don’t maximise the opportunity to get people from Trinidad and even people in Tobago to get out and get into the shops and restaurants and get the national economy moving again, then it is going to be an opportunity lost.”
Hardwick predicted when the borders do reopen, TT will to regain its reputation as one of the largest markets for travel and tourism in the region.
“We are going to be targeted remorselessly by other destinations for our visitor potential.
“But that sort of economic activity will be blown away by the actions and attractions of others and the opportunity will be lost to really see that financial stand circulating within our own borders, which is really what is required at this time.”
Businessman Kirton Sorias owns two food establishments, Mesoreen Café Bistrow and Crafters Stakehouse & Grill, both in Bon Accord.
He told Sunday Newsday he, too, is also adopting a wait and see approach on whether domestic tourism will boost the economy in the short to medium term.
For now, he does not believe it is possible.
Like Hardwick, he observed the passenger limitations of travel between the two islands owing to covid19 restrictions, may be challenging.
“You have restrictions all over, including on Caribbean Airlines and the ferry service. So, what little you are getting from the people that coming is nothing to talk about really in terms of any profit.”
In addition, Sorias said many people have complained they are not getting ferry tickets to come to Tobago until August.
“That is another obstacle. They can’t book for in the future. So, it makes it difficult for us in the tourism sector to plan.
“At the moment, is just a wait-and-see approach because it is very difficult, very, very slow.”
Since the Government lifted restrictions on restaurants and street food vendors six weeks ago, Sorias said many of his colleagues in the sector have been struggling to stay afloat.
Restaurants’ services have been limited to curbside pick-ups, but can open fully from today, which may bring some semblance of normalcy.
But Sorias said the curbside service had presented significant challenges for restaurant owners, especially those who do not operate from their own premises.
Sorias said: “If you are a restaurant owner and you are paying rent or if you are not even paying rent, curbside can do nothing for you because you are only making about $200 or $300 per day.”
He added during covid19, Tobagonians had no choice but to cook at home because fast food outlets and other food establishments were closed.
“So, they got accustomed cooking at home with the restrictions and now they are hardly eating out. So, it makes it difficult for the restaurant owner, especially the ones paying a lease.”Despite the challenges being experienced by stakeholders in the restaurant industry and other sectors in Tobago, Sorias is optimistic the easing of restrictions on bars, casinos and beaches, will, once again, generate commercial activity in the island.
“I am hoping things will get better in the latter part of the year.”
Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis said while the I Love Tobago campaign is not a planned one, the message is resonating.
He acknowledged the island has been relying on domestic tourism for quite some time.
“Our brothers and sisters in Trinidad have nowhere else to go at the moment. And Tobago is as good as any destination and open for business,” he said.
“We are treating with our issues in the sector and we will position ourselves to capitalise on this crisis and maximises the opportunities available to us at this time.”