OWNERS of villas and self-catering apartments have enjoyed a good Christmas season but hotels and guesthouses continue to struggle.
Chris James, president of the Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association (THTA), told Newsday on Wednesday, hotels are showing an average of 22 per cent occupancy while guesthouses are slightly less at 21 per cent. He said, villas and self-catering apartments are doing better at 30 per cent with a peak of 74 per cent. This is for the five-day period between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Bookings are still coming in late with guests making reservations for shorter stays and James hopes these figures improve. However, James said a number of guests have already started postponing reservations.
James, who described 2020 as the worst year for tourism and hospitality worldwide, said because of the covid19 pandemic’s severe impact on Tobago’s tourism sector, hoteliers had gone into and will remain in survival mode going into 2021.
Tourism is the main revenue earner in Tobago's economy with approximately 5,000 employed in the sector. James hopes 2021 will be a year of healing for the island as it refocuses on revolutionising its tourism product. His wish for the new year is that the government will consider THTA’s “urgent” proposals to assist hoteliers.
Martin George, chairman of the Tobago Chamber of Commerce, also told Newsday 2020 will be remembered as a trying year for Tobago businesses.
Business community resilient
He commended the Tobago business community for its resilience and hopes the economy can return to a level of normalcy so that there can be more business activity. He said businesses are hoping to recover even though another challenging year in 2021 is anticipated.
James said Tobago’s tourism sector has suffered for several years with occupancy and rates dropping to half of the regional average. And from the beginning of 2020 Tobago was already financially weak.
He said, “Covid19 arrived and the industry suddenly had no income and ongoing costs to maintain and secure our properties. The original bank moratorium helped as did the employment relief grant. The improvement grant now being distributed will help freshen up properties and the Business Development Unit (offered by the Division of Finance and the Economy) grant has helped others outside the accommodation sector.”
James lamented how stressful it has been for tourism stakeholders as many of them were forced to close their doors after going weeks without a visitor. And despite efforts to attract Trinidadians with significantly reduced accommodation packages, occupancy rates fluttered between zero and 20 per cent, James said. It wasn’t until November that the accommodation sector reported a slight spike in bookings for the Christmas and New Year’s period.
To help Tobago hoteliers cope with the effects of covid19 restrictions, in March, Minister of Finance Colm Imbert allocated $50 million for upgrades to facilitate a better guest experience when borders reopen. During the downtime, Tobago tourism stakeholders also engaged in virtual training sessions hosted by the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) on ways they can create an environment that will make their product or service safe for guests and employees.
In the second week in December, the Tobago Tourism Agency Ltd concluded a seven-day virtual tour and training sessions with UK travel agents. This initiative is expected to give Tobago a better chance on the travel market.
Use downtime to add value
In late November chairman of the Mt Irvine Bay Hotel Jacqueline Yorke-Wescott advised hoteliers to use the downtime to add value to their product. She was speaking at a virtual panel discussion on preparing for the reopening of the tourism sector where she encouraged hoteliers to “invest in your people and restructure your business… In a nutshell, pivot.”
James told Newsday, “The problem we have now as an industry in Tobago is the borders are still understandably closed. We have a much-reduced demand from visitors from Trinidad and individual businesses have high levels of debt.
“The THTA has an ongoing marketing initiative TobagoLime.com; the membership has been fully trained through the THTA and CARPHA covid19 training but we are all concerned about survival.
“THTA has requested that the standing committee on tourism be reconvened so that we can sit down with government/THA and find solutions. THTA has a number of proposals that have been put forward to the government/Tobago House of Assembly which are urgent. So hopefully early in 2021, the committee will be called and we can work together to not only save what we have but expand and build for a brighter future."
Hopeful vaccine will help remedy situation
For Tobago Chamber of Commerce, the arrival of a vaccine will “ease the fears of covid19 and would increase confidence in travellers and visitors that will allow the government to take a fresh look at reopening our borders so we can once again welcome international visitors.”
Until the government gives consideration to the reopening of the borders, George said the Tobago business community will remain thankful for the opportunity to still operate following covid19 guidelines.
“We are thankful for all the Trinidadian visitors that took the time to come across to Tobago and who have shown their support to us and our businesses. We appreciate them and we encourage them because they actually form the bedrock of what is our tourism industry on the island.”
He remains optimistic things will get better. “The point is: tough times don’t last, tough people do. We are resilient and we will see this through but at the same time we are counting on the government to give the infrastructural and developmental support and the overarching business climate business facilitation that is necessary for success.”