The Tobago tourism sector is one of the best-kept Caribbean secrets. Unlike other Caribbean destinations that mainly specialise in all-inclusive mass tourism, Tobago focuses on niche markets – diving, nature seekers, birdwatching, golf, and destination weddings. Let’s face it – the Caribbean is full of beautiful beaches. What sets Tobago apart is its unspoilt nature and laid-back atmosphere. Visitors to Tobago, local and foreign, relish the authentic Tobago experiences and interactions.
Because of its niche appeal, tourist arrivals to Tobago have always been low in comparison to other Caribbean islands. Compare fewer than 20,000 international arrivals to Tobago (unique, exclusive of cruise ship visitors) in 2019 to 97,629 to Grenada for the same period. In its heyday in 2005, visitors to Tobago reached an all-time high of 87,796. From 2003 to 2007, Tobago proved to be a leading earner of the country’s foreign exchange. With astute management, this can happen again.
In 2019, despite limited airlift, the Tobago tourism industry was showing encouraging signs of growth. Tobago was once again being regarded as an exotic long-haul destination for international travellers and an accessible staycation option for domestic tourists. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic quashed the gains made in 2019 and decimated the Tobago tourism industry.
The workforce in Tobago consists of roughly 33,000 people; 62 per cent of whom are employed by the Tobago House of Assembly (THA). The remaining people are employed in the private sector, which depends either directly or indirectly on tourism. In March 2020, the entire Tobago private sector collapsed. Tobago’s economy cannot survive without visitors – local and international.
This is a crisis of national importance and must be addressed at a national level. It is time for the Government, the THA and the private sector to come together to work on a rescue plan for the industry as well as effective policy changes that will protect the industry going forward. Tourism is one of the world’s most resilient industries and with prudent intervention Tobago will recover.
We need to reconvene the Tobago standing committee on tourism with Government/THA/stakeholders and be able to call on all the relevant agencies and authorities when needed to address specific issues. A five-year plan needs to be compiled with timelines and achievable goals to give confidence to the financial sector/investors the existing stakeholders and all those involved in the industry.
Work on improving investment incentives needs to be completed, so that we can compete and attract the investment that is still coming to the region. Covid19 needs to be a time to secure what we have and build for the future a sustainable industry that can earn foreign exchange, create employment and give Tobago the economies of scale that can support a viable private sector in order to be truly a part of the diversified economy of TT.
Covid19 has made it very clear to all in Tobago that without tourists we have seen a tremendous drop in economic activity. The reduced spending power of those involved in the tourism industry either directly or indirectly has had an enormous impact on every aspect of life in Tobago – no one can doubt the importance of tourism to the island.
The recently produced Draft National Tourism Policy (2020-2030) outlines some initiatives for growing TT’s tourism sector. However, none of the initiatives proposed will come to fruition if Tobago’s tourism product no longer exists. With most accommodation providers, tour operators, restaurants and business places closed and unable to meet loan payments, utility bills, or employee salaries, the outlook for the rest of the year is grim.
Chris James is the president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association